Interview with Frederic Madre
Meeting Frederic Madre was a pleasant surprise. Madre had made himself notorious in a very short time by inventing something called a 'spam engine', to create spam art. These days spam (unsolicited advertising in emails) is annoying. In the nineties, when spam was much less pervasive, it was considered not only rude, but also damaging to the Internet. It takes up massive amounts of bandwidth, disrupting the flow of Internet traffic and increasing costs for providers and users.The controversy around spam was easily abused however, by people who wanted to eradicate voices and expression they did not approve of on online platforms. On the mailing list nettime for example it was used in a disagreement between artists and activist and academic users, about what could and could not be posted.
In the interview Madre explains how he uses spam art as a means to criticize the urge to oversanitize the Internet. Frederic Madre's spam engine and mailing list Palais Tokyo (for which it was most used) are some of the most interesting projects in French net art. Yet Madre also talks about his first years online, between 1992 and 1995, and his stories give another interesting view of how early net culture developed. Today Frederic Madre runs an indie record company, 'Bruit Direct'. The photo below shows Madre with his youngest son.
JB: Tell me a little bit about your history. When did you get onto the net? I know you from 7-11, were you active before?
Frederic Madre: I got on the net in 92 or 93; I had been on CompuServe for a few years already. I used a terminal emulator, which ran at 300 bauds, and which was all green on black with a text interface. Later on I found an Internet link for email, and I subscribed to an indie American rock mailing list. I remember the first time I posted to that list. I reacted to a guy who wrote a long text in which he explained in elaborate detail what he liked about a particular band. My answer only said: yes, I agree. Immediately, Rob Vaughn, the admin sent me a personal email: if you do this again you're off the list (we both laugh out loud, JB). Several people approached me saying (husky voice): ‘you don't do this! This is the Internet. We should not waste bandwidth, so stop immediately!’ Some of them were kind. I thought: this is so great!
There was no worldwide web yet, which started of course in 1994. I began to write about music, as I am a big music fan. I was a punk in '76 and, well, I have tons of records. Anyway, I wrote record reviews and stuff like that, but after a while I got bored with this strict format. You could not write about anything else but music and a certain kind of music too or you would be thrown out of the list again. Several people actually got kicked out, including some famous musicians who wanted to talk about something else for a change. As I wanted to discuss movies or contemporary art shows, whatever, I simply started to write some texts on these topics and sent them to a few people. There were maybe 15 people I regularly sent stuff to. One of them, Ian Christe, was a friend of a friend at Wired magazine and a writer too. They got forwarded some text I wrote about an art show in Paris. They thought it was 'hysterical', I remember the word. John Alderman asked me to write for (hot)Wired.
So, next thing you know, they send me to Berlin, where I covered the Christo Reichstag wrapping for Hotwired. I got paid; they paid for the travel, the hotel. There was a guy from federal express to pick up my photos at my real workplace and ship them to California. They had lots of money at the time. So, I kept writing for them although the news format was getting to be a drag. Later on, they laid off people and the company was sold. They had to find money, and it became more difficult to write interesting things, so I stopped.
JB: How did you get into the net.art scene?
FM: At the time I was writing those things I got frustrated because it was all just 'news' for Wired. I always had to find something 'new' that would interest them. Back in 1994 I had started my own website, initially my homepage of course, which evolved into a small magazine on the web. I became influenced by a movement in the US that was pretty big, called 'personal narrative', which I discovered by being on dozens of mailing lists. There were lots of websites that were run by individuals who were telling their life stories. Important examples of those are 'the Fray' by Derek Powazek, 'Anthology' and 'after Dinner' by Alexis Massie and another one called 'so anyway' by someone whose name I keep forgetting. There were hundreds, all networked by interlinking.
Those people were designers mostly. Their sites were very beautiful, just a few images and text, ultra simple html written with notepad. They were just telling their stories, and they were quite frantic. Every day they would change something on the site, and it was very exciting to go there. Funny stories, often their daily problems. There were so many of them that it was a movement. I wanted to do something like this, so I did this with porculus, mirabelle and caroline sarrion. Net.art only comes very late into my story, because when I first started Pleine-Peau with my friends, we wanted to do some kind of political, free expression magazine. David Hudson, of rewired.com turned me to other things.
He told me about this 7-11 mailing list for net.art. I got on it and I thought it was great. I did not know nettime at that time. Later I was told nettime was a private list, and on the site was written you had to ask someone to allow you on it. 7-11 was much more interesting. Nettime was just those long texts, which was so boring after a while. I wondered why all those people did not put their texts on the web and send the URL to the list... On 7-11 people were actually doing something creative within the mail itself. So I started to get in the mood too. I did not call it net.art or anything, all that ASCII stuff. I wondered how they did that, so I gave it a try. Now I know people used software, and I do too, that changes pictures into ASCII and tweaked it but at first I was doing it by hand! Typing all the spaces, wondering how to do a curve in ASCII just by using my keyboard (laughs). I spent hours doing this!
What I liked was that there were those forms on Ljudmila or irational that you could use to send mails to the list as if you were Keiko Suzuki. I thought it was fantastic to have this machine to send mail to the list where people did not really know where it was coming from. This was a great idea, which evolved into what I used for my mailing list Palais Tokyo, something I call spam art.
JB: What did you do after 7-11, and what contacts do you still have from there?
FM: I am still on 7-11! The website that archived it stops at 1-1-2000. Btw, it is the only real y2k bug I know of, and I work in the computer industry. I saw it is now archived at the Thing. On the Thing website they don't use a fixed font though, so all the ASCII art is fucked up. After 7-11 I wanted to do more with the web then just telling my life story or trying to be political although I still am engaged with these. On the web, and in life, I am interested in all sorts of things, and I want to mix them. The web-zine Pleine Peau kept evolving in different directions. One lovely thing with the net is that you can reach people so easily. One of the first people I contacted from 7-11 was Vuk Cosic.
I asked him if he wanted to do something for Pleine Peau. I did a few thematic issues, and this one that featured Vuk was about scars. Next to him I also contacted people from this personal narrative movement, like Alexei Massie, who sent a story about her birth. Vuk Cosic sent me a story about the bullet holes in walls in different cities he lived in, like Dubrovnik. I loved it and did the html for it. To show the variety of people: there was also something by the Swans, a post no wave New York band and also my mum.
After a while I wanted to move away from telling plain stories though, I wanted to try some more complex things. I wanted to make things that move or change; I wanted a kind of flux. I looked at a lot of net art, and I decided to use some of their ways. A few people asked why I stopped telling stories, yet to me it was still storytelling, only in a different way.
JB: Do you consider what you do now as net art then?
FM: No. In a way of course I do, but I do not want to be labeled as such because it does not add anything to say so. There is no need to call it art. I see it as a way of doing what I always do, which is fiction. Fiction on the Internet in all possible ways. I have simple stories I put on the web. There are mailing lists where I tell stories, plus I have the spam art machine. The latter are also a way of telling fiction. They are machines that are interacting between the web and mailing lists. You can submit words in special fields, you press a button and out it goes, reformatted and the meaning is reformatted by it.
JB: Is it a concrete poetry machine?
FM: It could be called this. It is, but I do not like the word poetry. It produces some of that stuff I loved on 7-11, but in an automated way. I am influenced by all those movements that were trying to use the page space as a tool and make the layout tell part of the story, which I also wrote about for Vuk's solo ASCII show. It is also automatic fiction because you just feed it with words, and the machine constructs the meaning. The words are messed in a different order than you put them in, and it adds other words too. It is very strange to see how people use them. Some use them to make beautiful things, and others use it to overflow certain mailing lists. Some even use them to abuse individuals.
There was a big incident where somebody suddenly attacked the Syndicate mailing list with them, for some reason that had nothing to do with Pleine-Peau or me. And of course there were problems with Nettime, but that is usual. It's a limit tester... There are several ways in which one can use them. I think they are nice and I might do more. In fact in France there are now several people that have started to do these kinds of machines, after mine. All those machines were used in conjunction with my mailing list Palais Tokyo. We received sometimes hundreds of them in one day. It became some kind of movement also, spam art, a French movement let's say.
JB: You are of course aware that the word 'spam' itself is almost enough to make a lot of people stagger on the net, especially hackers and old time net purists. So your spam machine also has a few (net) political implications. What do you think of those, how do you think you position yourself towards those people?
FM: First I have to say that there is a big technological gap between this first experience years ago when I got on the net and people wanted to throw you off list if you sent mail bigger than 2k and now that I produce so called spam on purpose. Nobody really cares anymore. Nobody remembers 'netiquette' anymore, which I'm not saying is a good evolution but it's a fact. I used to refer boring spammers to the original RFC’s (request for comments), which explain how to behave. Nowadays sometimes I do not behave myself according to old school rules, I stopped doing this... But this is a logical evolution now that the bandwidth is rather open and access is easier and cheaper, it is not a technical problem anymore.
It became more important to freely send mail and express yourself, and explain to people that they can use the net, rather than let it stay something one has to be careful with and use with restraint. In France for example there is one mailing list where people are subscribed, but when you send a mail, the list members get very upset.
They are subscribed, but do not really want to receive anything. Maybe they like to go out and buy bread and tell their baker "I am on a mailing list!" Then they go home, find those mails and go: "O shit!" So I did spam art also as a provocation towards those people. When I have something to say on a list, I say it. When someone says something I like I will however not say simply: I agree, but I will probably react to it more elaborately.
Spam is a controversial term, and it conveys a lot of negative aspects. That is why I chose it. I am often very negative and confrontational about things; I think that disorder raises consciousness. There are lots of negative things that happen on the net, like everywhere else, and people are too nice to each other often. They are not aggressive enough; I guess they are building their career. Using the word spam art gave a bad reputation to something that was happening before. I just coined the word spam art because it was fun, and it had connotations that people do not like. Which was what I wanted: to provoke. Now I have this reputation as a specialist of commercial spam, but I don't know how to use spambots for instance.
JB: What do you think of the often-rigid measures providers take against spam? There are no official laws, there is no jurisdiction around spam, and there is only some vague old consensus. On the basis of this people are being blocked from using their account.
FM: I think this is basically a fascist thing. The whole business around preventing spam is that people think they are -protecting- others from something that they, of all people, judge is bad for others, but protection is a right-wing value. Insecurity and fear are part of right wing ideology. Protection from spam means that somebody somewhere is dictating what is acceptable and what is not. Of course I get more and more spam. Every day I get spam for porn sites, or how to get rich in ten days... but I just delete it. What is the big problem about it? I don't care, it is a ridiculous way of selling stuff and everybody knows it is. Some people do business against spam, and they think they are righteous. We do not need more police on the net, and we certainly do not need pseudo-left police with so called good intentions.
JB: Does the problem not lie with what exactly the definition of spam is? Your spam art or spam engines are not the same as those porn or big money advertisements.
FM: What they have in common is that you did not ask for it to be sent to you. But when you are on a list, you also get things you did not ask for. You get input from people you would not get otherwise. A lot of stuff you get on mailing lists is spam in the traditional definition. A lot of it is announcements, addresses of websites. In what way is it different from other advertisements? It is promotion for your stuff. The only difference might be that it's on or off topic promotion... For instance I was doing something similar on a French list: each time I was sending small stories specifically written for email, but each time I would include links to my site, woven inside the story. It was publicity for my site but it was a story too, I think it's fair enough. People should question their own use of mailing lists. When you write to a list, you're supposed to 'contribute' to the damn 'community'. But if you add a link to your site, then it can drag it to something else. I think it is important to think about when you do put a link to your site in your mail and when you don't. I hate .sig files.
JB: Why did you shut your list Palais Tokyo down? Did you also close down the spam engine?
FM: The spam engine is still going, it can be directed to other lists too and I have no complaints, sometimes people ask me to turn it on their lists even. I closed Palais Tokyo because I think a list should be opened and closed, like a door. There is a time for everything, it is important to know things are not forever. I didn't want it to become an institution. I did not want this list to be something people are glad to be on but don't really read what is happening, and they do not participate. Just a fancy thing you can wear as a badge.
Palais Tokyo has only been going for nine months, but a lot was achieved with it. It was not moderated. Lots of things happened, some interesting, some not even painful at times. I believe the best thing was that we all achieved to create a kind of 'net scene' in France. Before people were doing stuff separately, and looking at each other like 'glass dogs'. Like: "I know this guy is doing something, but I am not talking to him." All of us came together; we actually talked and did things together. I think they all came to this list because it was the only list of this type: where you can experiment whatever you want and there were no rules. It was a space that was not filled by any other list in France. So closing it was some statement to other lists too, that they could question their existence, at times.
I have to add that then the closure was quite brutal on my part. I had spent a very exceptional real life day and thought I had an acute perception of what was happening on the list in general. What was happening on the list that day was what had been going on for a month, but I knew there and then that it was over and I closed it. I had been warning all subscribers that one day I would close this list; still there was some distress and aggression from certain subscribers towards me, which I understand in a way. There was also lots of encouragement too. All of it has become mythical and in that way it is important to us all. There are people that claim that it was closed because of their personal conduct, even, and that is quite amazing!
JB: The separation between France and the rest of the net scene, is that a technological issue first of all, because France used to have a different kind of network system?
FM: I don't think it is linked to that. Of course there was the Minitel thing, which was so big, but its production was always very corporate. Minitel was only companies doing stuff, and there was this big sex exchange discussion thing, which was the main income for Minitel. There was no art or any general discussion happening really, although my friend d2b tells me there was one art service called "toi et moi" or something. You had to invest in a lot of expensive hardware and proprietary software to set up a Minitel server. I never saw anything interesting. Minitel was widespread however. My mother in law had one, everybody did, but the thing just sits there at her place with a nice napkin on top with a cactus and that's it.
The gap between France and the rest of the net has more to do with the language issue. When I started to get on the Internet in '93 everything was in English. There was no French stuff. A lot of people in France do not understand English well. Maybe reading it is ok, but writing, expressing yourself, is not so easy. For a long time there were no providers in France as well. I was with an American provider when I started, and suddenly the French telecoms company decided to breach the contract with my provider. I was on several mailing lists, and suddenly I had to make a call to the USA to get my mail! On Palais Tokyo I also noticed that whenever a discussion became more serious, like about net art (laughs), then people from France switched to French. They could not enter a deeper discussion in English.
JB: Will you take your spam art actions further?
FM: I also closed the list because I think we have done everything that could be done with this. We have reached the limits of it. When we were at the X-00 festival in Bretagne organized by x-arn.org, we sent 250 mails in one hour to various mailing lists. That was so much fun.
JB: Did it change anything about the rigidity with which spam is approached?
JB: So it failed in this respect?
FM: It was not about promoting spam, but about breaking some netiquette laws that were unjustly enforced by people that pretended to be on 'our' side, you know, for our own good. Doing forbidden things for righteous reasons. Of course after every spam outburst there were many people unsubscribing from the list. There were also lots of people who stayed though. It reinforced the us-and-them opposition even more. I now definitely hate moderation more than ever and moderators hate me more too. It's important to choose your side and work from there.
JB: I mean more in general, what changed outside the list? Do you think you changed the perception of spam?
FM: Basically it was a local, French thing although it was recognized internationally that there was something happening out there, for once. It was a French way of doing stuff, a net riot of our own. I don't know if I want to achieve things. I am always questioning the measure of success of something you can do on the internet. It does not mean a lot to me. It was a success for the list: spam made it lively, even if it at the same time doomed the list ultimately. I wanted to have everything on this list: I wanted to have a discussion list, I wanted to have spam, I wanted to have some personal stuff, everything! And it is not possible to have everything, I know. There are very few people in the world that can take everything and are ready to handle this freedom. People want to be channeled.
JB: You sound like Ted Byfield!
FM: To me he is just a moderator of nettime... I have never met the person 'ted byfield', once someone pointed out the top of his skull at n5m3 to me, which is enough. I do not want to become friends with a moderator; I want to keep the antagonism fresh! But I recently heard he was on the bad_subjects mailing list and I was too, a long long time ago, although I unsubbed cause it was too let's-be-left-wing-on-the-campus for me, still it's important that we share this in a way. It upsets me even more, as I was saying, that the most obtrusive moderation comes from left wing net theorists.
Palais Tokyo was instrumental in providing information and some form of relief, let's say, when netochka's server was shut down by nettime oligarchy's gone haywire. Her ‘typedmess’ mailing list was shut down too and Palais Tokyo sheltered it. At awful times, like those were, there's lots that is happening also off-lists between individuals. Somehow nettime always gets into trouble; they are the ultimate troublemakers, not us. I had to unsub from nettime during the Kosovo war, the moderation was absolutely nauseating and that's when I realized that it was the moderation process itself that was dangerous and against everything I loved about the net.
At the time there was a bit of quite heavy discussion behind the scenes when I made a semi-public announcement that I was leaving the nettime list, it certainly was impossible to discuss it on the list itself so I decided to create a stir where I knew it would hit reasonably. From then on, I have vowed to never sub to a moderated list and resign from a list which suddenly becomes moderated (it sometimes happen, people flip); it's a political issue. The moderators create trouble by enforcing unjust law. I wish to break it.
JB: But now you say people want to be channeled!
FM: Some people want to be, not all. One thing that annoys me a lot is people who send mails saying: "unsubscribe me, please". They are like people walking into a MacDonald’s, to order a Big Mac, and they want some kind of service delivered. The Internet is not about service. It is just people trying to do stuff together, which is always difficult. It annoys me when people do not even try to do those basic things by themselves. There is a major difference between any moderator of a list and the role of what I call admin or list-owner. Moderators think they know best, but I don't. I think people should learn things by themselves. When I first got on the net I found out how to get on a list, and how to get out. I never asked anyone to do stuff for me. When I open a list I want to open channels, not close them. I don't want people to feel trapped into something. That is the difference with a moderated list.
Moderators try to protect people from something that does not exist and does not have to be feared and by doing this they emphasize their own importance and it's endless. I often think of a song by the Saints, which goes 'I see police but where's the crime?’ Even on a list that has a very specific topic, sometimes a post can only seem like it is off topic. Who's to say what the sender truly meant? Also when people get on a list about something/anything they need to know whom they are talking to, and they might want to talk about something else that leads to the lists' subject. They must understand who is there with them, who they are talking to, and in what way it is possible to get to the subject through several routes.
If a person moderates a list, -then- it becomes a one-track mind, because his personal view of the topic is the only view that's conveyed on the list. That is what I call fascist. If a list cannot regulate itself, by the whole body of subscribers who participate to it, the list should be closed. It then achieved all it could achieve, it is not sad it's only natural. If it strays off the subject too much, this means that all the people who came on the list did not understand what the subject was, or it means that amongst them there are many people who are interested in something else than the initial one, so be it. Why is it more or less valid than the initial one? When you get into one topic only in one way, it is like collecting butterflies in your locked apartment. That is not what I think the net is about. The net is about people getting together, talking about stuff, doing stuff and the topic or theme is just an excuse for it.