The Italian music label Rizosfera interviewed the Network Ensemble for their release of Selected Network Studies. This is an excerpt from the interview published, alongside other material, on Academia.
On experimental tools and DIY making
A unique aspect of the project is the custom-building and self-initiated production of data-collection tools and assembling software operating them. Why this choice?
We create tools as an initial research process. The necessary starting point is looking and listening. Donna Haraway puts it disarmingly simply: research is knowing a bit more in the evening than you did in the morning. We often align a number of readily available hardware and software tools and create assemblages through which we gather information in multiple ways.
Through this initial process we come to know a bit more about [network] data, the structures that produce it, the conditions which create it and which it creates in return. Once an assembled tool is completed or consistently usable [tools are never completed – only ever abandoned] there comes the process of operating it, exploring with it.
We create tools as a refining process. We suspend our disbelief, adopting an approach similar to dowsing: a type of divination employed in attempts to locate hidden materials without the use of a scientific apparatus, and without a full understanding. If we waited for a full and complete understanding, we would be paralysed in the face of complexity. Dowsing into the unknown, we gradually improve our divining rods in an iterative fashion. In this case, looking at and listening to the urban environment and the WiFi data found within it refine our tools and, in return, our understanding of those networks and their operations.
We create tools as a necessity, stemming from an inability to access existing tools, whether due to the structures of control around them, their complexity or the fact that a tool for a particular task does not exist. In this case, tools exist to read networks, and tools exist to make sound, but a tool for both has to be bespoke.
We create tools as a tactic. Different situations call for different approaches, particularly when collecting data in sensitive locations. In this case, software tools operating within a laptop allow for covert data collection, preventing scrutiny when on a plane, in an embassy or by a governmental building.
We create tools as an open box, so that they be pulled apart and understood, visually if not physically. Enough with black boxes and impenetrable assemblages: our most successful machines should be structured to describe their machinations. In this case the NE3, a tool to turn WiFi packets into a source of data-noise, is conceived as a compact board where all components are exposed and their connections visible, facilitating an initial understanding of how information flows within it. There are, of course, further levels of complexity within this – within a world of software and microprocessors it is not necessarily possible to fully expose the workings of an active object, but we hope that its presentation in this way encourages questioning and exploration.
We create tools in the attempt to produce unique, beautiful artefacts. Sometimes this presupposes the establishment of a visual system. In this case, a symbolic representation of network activity was conceived: a set of icons screen-printed on the original Network Ensemble machines visually describe six categories, or network slices, within which WiFi packets are found. The same icons become the vehicle of audiovisual experimentation during the Network Ensemble performances, establishing a different network aesthetic.