August 11, 2004


by Nick Montfort · , 4:33 pm

Unfortunately, the one bit of news I’ve gotten so far regarding the ACM Hypertext conference — which I’m not attending this year; GTxA is well-represented there by Noah, however — is from Andruid Kerne, who works with computing and collage and who I know from when he was doing his PhD at NYU. Andruid, now on the faculty of Texas A&M, describes how he was asked to change the content of a politically charged work that was accepted for presentation as a demo. Specifically, his hypermedia collage, available online, includes a linked photograph, published in The New York Times, of nude Iraqi prisoners being made to simulate fellatio. A linked photograph of President Bush, who seems to be staring right at the act, is juxtaposed.

Whether or not this issue is framed in terms of censorship or as a legal or quasi-legal matter of some sort, as Andruid claims it should be, it points out a problematic rift. On the one hand technical communities may think a researcher’s examples are interchangeable and that technical issues should be discussed without having offensive content included in any examples. Artistic and critical practitioners, on the other hand, often consider offensive, disturbing, and provocative content to provide the best and most powerful examples to use when discussing the interplay of technology, rhetoric, and art. If we’re always to avoid offense in digital media studies, I don’t see how Kris Nesbitt would be able to research “angel babies” websites, which contain disturbing images (presented at Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling). While that line of research may not involve detailed technical discussion, the relationship between spatial hypertext topics and political rhetoric seems to be something that does deserve consideration in technical as well as humanistic circles. When the offensive nature of material isn’t germane to the scholarly point being made, I see little problem with reviewers, conference organizers, or editors asking for changes. But it is germane to some topics. I hope there will be places to discuss such topics, and that the range of content discussed is not always limited that which offends no one.

Comments from any parties involved are welcome; given the adversarial nature of the issue, I’ll add a link to this post if I learn of any response to Andruid that is online.

8 Responses to “Hypersensitivity?”

  1. nick Says:

    A speculative addendum: I get the idea that technical communities do find politicized content, used as an example or otherwise referred to, to be unseemly. A mild political joke here and there is all right, but I think anything more serious has a tendency to be seen as offensive, and reviewers might ask you to remove it, even if there aren’t sexually charged photos involved. This is, in part, because such material — particularly if it’s actually linked in detail to the technical discussion — challenges the myth that technical practice is apolitical. Whether it’s research on “digital rights management” systems or the engineering of land mines, technologists like to pretend that their work is just technical and has no inherent political dimension. Of course, some people do have the strength to believe otherwise, or, given what they’re doing, simply can’t keep pretending.

  2. michael Says:

    Yes, I got this note from Andruid as well and was going to post about it. You beat me to it, Nick :).

    It does seem disturbing that Hypertext wishes to divorce discussions of hypertext systems from the use of those systems to express difficult ideas. From the buzz I’ve heard over the last couple of years, it sounds like the Hypertext conference has a history of being unwelcoming to artists.

  3. noah Says:

    I just got in from a thoughtful, friendly group discussion of this issue — one which included Andruid, a number of members of this year’s HT Program Committee, and many conference attendees (it was announced during the sessions today).

    It’s agreed in general that things weren’t handled quite the way they should have been (putting it mildly, perhaps). Talking around that was where most of the conversation stayed. But toward the end Andruid proposed that these sorts of decisions, in the future, be put before the Program Committee as a whole — rather than resting solely with the Program Co-Chairs. There was no voting process, or anything of the sort, but this suggestion seemed to receive general support around the room. Also, Program Co-Chair David De Roure asked that attendees come up to him privately, throughout the rest of the conference, to let him know more of their thoughts.

    In all, I think this was handled quite well, and I get the impression that all involved (including Andruid) agree. The one unfortunate thing, it seems to me, is that Program Co-Chair Helen Ashman was not able to attend the conference, and so was not part of the conversation. This made it hard to come away from the meeting with any greater sense of the context of her statements and actions in all of this. Nonetheless, I have the strong sense that the Hypertext community is going to be able to handle this sort of thing better in the future.

    PS – Regarding Michael’s comment, this year the Hypertext conference made a big step in being welcoming to the artists invited for the reading. A world of difference from last year. (As I can attest, having presented at both readings.)

  4. Frasca Says:

    It is hard to give an opinion on something that you haven’t been part of, but after reading the email conversations posted on Andruid’s site (which, as far as I know, seems authentic), the first thing that comes to my mind is that some people should grow up. Of course, that thought is not very helpful to change things that are wrong, so I guess I need a new one.
    Academics being offended at the images of torture? Certainly, it is disgusting to admit that your government is ruthless enough to commit atrocious crimes (I know it for a fact, my government did torture our own citizens, including family and personal friends). So, America is not just all about holding hands, happy meals and fireworks on the 4th of July? Well, yes. Cheap oil comes at the price of torture and suffering? Well, you ain’t in Kansas anymore. Sometimes people have to look into shit straight in the eyes (does shit have eyes, btw? :). Certainly, academics could have use abstract examples and therefore have a sanitized conference. Wasn’t hypertext about changing the way people think? Can people think in abstract? Must technology be isolated from real life? Who gives a fuck about seeing a picture that has been broadcasted and printed millions of times?
    It is easy to fool oneself by saying that political statements should be unwelcomed, specially in the context of an electoral year. So that means that people should just keep quiet and pretend that they are not funding with their tax dollars TERRIBLE war crimes? Yes, folks, you are funding crimes (and I guess I am, too, since my Danish taxes goes all the way to Iraq, too). This has nothing to do with elections: it is a matter of moral. Whoever is running any government, there is a moral liability. And torture is despicable in any context. So, Andruid chose an example that illustrated well his point. Sure, he could have used a different one in order not to offend some people. But who are these people who could get offended, anyway? People who would get offended when reminded that their government is committing war crimes? Such indecent people are the ones who do not deserve to be part of an academic organization and, even less, to educate people at universities. So there is no need to protect them.
    Sad, sad, sad. A world that does not want anymore to be provoked, living in an isolated fantasy world of link and lexia, far away from the sounds of war, comfortably numb. Of course, who knows if Andruid’s piece was a thought-provoking one and he was not simply using the torture picture as a way to get some cheap attention to his work? I certainly don’t, since I haven’t see the piece. But I think it would have been worth taking the risk. After all, the piece was considered to be good enough to be presented at the conference. Let the attendants decide by themselves, then. I doubt that the sight of documents would do some irreparable damage to the brains. After all, that is what being an adult is about, isn’t it? Gee, some people need to grow up.

  5. mark bernstein Says:

    It is important, in my opinion, to remember that the subject of the proposal was NOT the image in question, nor the war, nor torture, nor any of these topics. The subject was, in my opinion, inherently technical. The proposal was reviewed as a technical proposal, it was accepted as a demo as an interesting system demonstration, and the entire question here regards an illustration inserted to exemplify the system.

    This is, in essence, a big controversy over an editorial query about a small piece of an illustration of a system the reviewers thought would be interesting to demonstrate.

  6. Andruid Kerne Says:

    With regard to Mark’s comment, the original paper — the text — was
    essentially conceptual,
    rather than technical. It is about the idea of a medium called
    compositional hypermedia, not about the program for making it that we
    are building (combinFormation).
    I created the
    (updated version w history of the censorship experience)
    to illustrate the points in the paper. I did it in a
    very spontaneous way, the week the [torture] story broke. I have
    consistently felt the piece was a strong example of what the paper had
    to say, and so i have felt a responsibility not to water it down. I
    have been hearing an echo from my study w the poet Allen
    Ginsburg: “First thought, best thought.”

    Hypertext is an essential cultural form of the information age.
    I don’t believe that research about a cultural form can be separated
    from actual creation of cultural forms. In fact, I believe that
    creating cultural forms in the medium is vital research.
    My research is based on an underlying principle: that we need to give
    people tools that facilitate personal expression. I offer this as a
    human centered value system.

    Further, as Schiphorst has asserted, the creative is
    technical. There’s plenty of technique in the piece: the choice of
    found elements, the use of color, size, spatiality. The conference
    mis-classified the work from the beginnning, in this regard. And then,
    the conf got away from its core mission: disseminating strong research.
    The paper says you can create stronger forms of expression and
    communication with a “compositional” approach, than with a purely
    spatial one. I think that is proved through the experience.

    I’d also like to mention that I actually believe the hypertext
    conference, in spite of its historic missteps, has an important role to
    play as a hybrid space, that is, one in which art and science
    methodologies are combined. That is why I sent the work there in
    the first place. And that is why I bothered to sustain resisting the
    process that was doled out. To me, it is worth contesting the
    definition of what research is, epistemologically. I want to build the
    Hypertext Conference, not to trash it. Sometimes resisting
    authority is an essential part of participatory democracy.
    What are we, if not agents of transformation?!
    The community meeting on the subject of my work and the processes of the conference, on
    Wednesday evening, was a positive step.

  7. diane greco Says:

    You know, in 1994 I wrote a little paper which I presented at that year’s HT conference that addresses these issues, in outline if not in detail. You can find it here:

    The idea that hypertext has always been political and about bodies seems truer now than ever.

    At the same time, I share Nick’s pessimism about bringing up these issues in a technical forum, even one like HT, which ten years ago was open enough to publish my non-technical and overtly political article. At the same time, I got the feeling my reviewers thought my paper was just about as much radicalism as they could bear. (And now, with ten years of hindsight, I don’t think my manifesto was very radical in the first place, and I got some things wrong, too.)

  8. diane greco Says:

    PS. Oops. Make that 1996. How the years flow together… Or maybe it’s just that I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in 18 months…

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