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June 18th 2003: Report from the Read_Me 2.3 Festival

[June 18th 2003]

Alexei Shulgin and Olga Goriunova, the Read_Me organizers.

Report from the Read_Me 2.3 Festival
On Friday 30th and Saturday the 31st of May the second Read_Me festival was
organized in Helsinki, Finland. The first festival was held in Moscow in May 2002. Lars Midbøe reports from the festival.

Readme software art festival
Helsinki 30th – 31st of May 2003

Say it with Software Art
So what is this festival with the strange name that is usually associated with the file that accompanies most software applications – the file that no one reads unless the program does not work or behaves strangely?

Read_Me is a festival, or rather a conference, with a small exhibition, dedicated to software art. Software created with purposes different from traditional pragmatic software, software that are works of art in their own right. The Read_Me festival aims to change the far too common view on software as only being a neutral tool for information processing.

During two days artists and theorists meet for presentations and discussions on various aspects of software and code;- and art. One might think this would be a really nerdy event with people discussing advanced programming issues and the usual ‘religious’ discussion of different flavors of UNIX. But Read_Me is far different from such an event since the organizers did a really good job on keeping the conferences linked to art and at the same time focus on code and creativity as the main issue.

Left: Just put on a cheap suit and put on the show, like the Yes Men do.
Right: Alessandro Ludovico is constantly working, gathering info, even at parties.

Gulliver travels to UNIX land
The closest the festival got to ‘religious’ was the quite lively discussions generated by Florian Cramer’s brilliant lecture on the topic ‘Artistic Subjectivity and the Unix Commandline’. Florian Cramer teaches Comparative Literature at Freie Universitaet Berlin and with his background he managed to draw parallels between operating systems and classic literature that few would have thought of. Parallels used as a tool to make his point on why one should or could reconsider the marvel or graphical user interfaces. I will for sure reread Gulliver’s travels, especially the passage where people are carrying out discussions with the help of physical objects. It is a really amusing comment on today’s Graphical User Interfaces.

Bringing Capitalism and Democracy Closer Together
In strong contrast to Florian’s rather strict and concise lecture, where all presentation ‘graphics’ were presented in the UNIX command line itself, was the colorful presentation given by Hans Bernhard – a Swiss artist living in Austria. He is also working together with his girlfriend Liz under the assembling name Ubermorgen. There are not many artists who can present documentation of an artwork in the form of videotape containing a 27 minute broadcast from CNN. The whole broadcast was dedicated to discussion related to the opening, shutdown and then reopening of Hans Bernhard’s website called [V]ote-auction. During the US presidential elections in 2000, Ubermorgen and James Baumgartner ran a web site buying and auctioning votes via the Internet. This website was of course upsetting to the US authorities but somehow they just did not see the irony and therefore tried to sue the pants of the artist. The project generated 14 lawsuits, 2500 news clippings and by running this project he managed to waste a large number of working hours at institutions like the FBI, CIA and NSA. Hans Bernhard also runs the website ‘injunction generator’. So if you would like to be an instant hacktivist you could log in there and scare a company by your own choice, and probably waste a good number of lawyer hours somewhere in the US.

Left: Overview of the exhibition at Read_Me. Right: An essential part in any good conference is a good party the last evening. Here the guys from micromusic providing good music created on laptops and Gameboy consoles.

Hacktivists and other disturbing people
Apart from individual artists and theorists there were also a couple of presentations by people representing various communities and projects. First in this group was Alessandro Ludovico, who presented both his online and printed version of the new media magazine Neural has been published in magazine form since 1993 and online since late 2000 and its focus is on new media art, hactivism and other phenomena related to creative use of new technology. During Alessandros presentation one is amazed by the work that is done by one persons keeping the rest of us updated on the latest development in the world of new media art. It is worth mentioning that from this issue and forward the paper version of Neural will be published in both an English and Italian version.

The old school of hackers and coders was represented by the infamous organization Chaos Computer Club. Founded in 1981 it has been around since the beginning of the personal computing era and is well known throughout the world for various projects, not all of them, confirmed by the club itself. Tim Pritlove from the Berlin branch of CCC gave a good ‘quick start guide’ to the world and terminology of hacking. He also gave a presentation of the clubs latest project blinkenlights where they turned an eight story building into one large monochrome computer screen, a cool project on art in public space only too bad the presentation was a bit too detailed and long.

The most humorous presentation in this group was in my opinion the Yes Men. They are not as the name implies only men, they call themselves genderless, but they always say yes.
By running a rather unclear website they are frequently, and deliberately, mistaken as the world trade organization. When asked to come to various conferences and symposiums to talk about free trade etc. they will of course say YES! Once they are invited and have told the organizers that they are not able to send the CEO but will send a professor this or that. From there they put on the show. They travel to the conference, paying their own tickets to avoid lawsuits, and will then present a completely nonsense presentation on subjects like free trade or maybe present news like “WTO will shut down its organization since we have recently come to the conclusion that we only make problems for poor developing countries”.

A project like this might be in the far end of software art but it is important to remember that the creation of this wonderful new media called the Internet is based on the development of code, and Internet is the media that has created a possibility for social and political actions like these.

Left: Florian Cramer and the UNIX command line. Right: Hans Bernhard on stage.

Focus through variations
In my personal opinion I think the organizers of Read_Me festival made a wise decision on putting together persons and groups with so different backgrounds, as a way of focusing on the unsung hero of new technology namely software and code. At the same time they manage to focus on the fact that code will only be boring code without the people who take on the challenge to use this tool in new and unexpected ways.

The total of lectures and presentations was eighteen, featuring a couple of more well known, and less well known, names than some of the people mentioned above, but it would be impossible to cover it all without writing a small book. If you have not been to a lecture by e.g. Lev Manovich before, you might think that his lecture was more interesting but Read_Me created a good opportunity to experience not so well known but really interesting people and subjects.

On the critical side one could wish that the festival was spread out over three days to give some more room for pauses and informal discussions. Sitting through eighteen lectures and presentations during two days is quite demanding on the audience. But anyway it was really worth the effort.

Left: Read_Me gathered quite a good crowd. Right: Still from the CNN program discussing Vote Auction.

I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the development of new media art to visit the website and if possible try to get their hands on a copy of the Read_Me 2.3 Reader, a small but interesting book published for the Read_Me festival.

The next trend?
A roughly recreated/interpreted quote or comment from one lecturer could be described like this “now that the art establishment has exploited the term beyond the point of further possibilities, it might be time to coin a new phrase, and software art seem to be the right one”. Since this quote is a construct from memory I will not mention, who expressed this. But feel free to browse through the complete program of the festival and try to make a guess.

The Read_Me festival is organized by Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin. The organization and the online project called run by them together with an additional group of people.

Apart from the two day conference the festival also includes a small but interesting exhibition presenting a selection of software artworks. The exhibition showed eight works selected from the website, where all works can be downloaded and viewed and/or experienced.

Lars Midbøe is one of the people behind Malmoe based Electrohype (

Related links:

About the Read_Me Festival:
The Read_Me Program:

The Runme Site:
The Read_Me Reader:

Florian Cramer: by Alessandro Ludovico:

Hans Bernhard and Ubermorgen:
CNN on Vote auction:

Tim Pritlove – Blinkenlights:

The Yes Men:


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