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Interview with Alessandro Ludovico (Neural.it)

About Alessandro Ludovico

Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and, since 1993, he has been editor in chief of Neural magazine. He is the author of several essays on digital culture and he co-edited Mag.Net Reader. Alessandro is one of the founding contributors of the Nettime community, and also one of the founders of the Mag.Net organisation (Electronic Cultural Publishers). He teaches at the Academy of Art in Carrara, Italy and was recently a research fellow at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam.

About Neural

Neural is a magazine on new media art, hacktivism and e-music that is published three times a year in English and Italian. It is complemented by its blog http://www.neural.it/, which features daily news and reviews.

The following interview between Alessandro Ludovico and Annette Wolfsberger took place on 2 June 2009 in Rotterdam.


What was the trigger for you to start Neural, and what format did it have at the start?

I started with the first print magazine 16 years ago, in November 1993. The first online presence of Neural was in May 1997 – something that I cannot really call a ‘blog’. It was a page with a few posts, which was supposed to be updated every 15 days and that’s what I tried to do. The site was meant to be a small issue, like a bonus to the magazine, but it ended up simply not working because it needed so much work and maintenance. It included text, pictures, and for every issue there was a piece of software art that could be downloaded. For me the blog was a reflection of the printed edition.

I was always very interested in publishing, but I was also a geek. I bought my first Commodore 64 when I was 16 and I started to work for an underground electronic music label in Bari. At some point I proposed the idea of printing a magazine to a friend at work because we were both interested in all the stuff that was happening. Electronic publishing and the internet had just arrived, but there was no magazine about it. Neural concentrates on digital culture – that’s what we would call it now. At that time we called it cyberculture, and that included and still includes art, music and politics, all within or mediated by digital forms. Actually, the first issue of Neural was published six months after the first issue of Wired!


Wow…

I was not aware that Wired magazine was going to be published – there was no internet in that sense. Actually, the first thing we published before the magazine was a hybrid product with my friend’s record label called Minus Habens Records (which still exists). I was very passionate about virtual reality developments, so I started to collect stuff and I even did a couple of trips to see these VR machines.

What we came up with in 1992 was the Virtual Reality Handbook, with all the physical addresses of producers, magazines, artists, you name it, and a few conceptual texts about virtual reality. It was a very thin book, about 40 pages, with a CD of music inspired by the topic. The book was bilingual (English and Italian) and was sold out in less than a year. It was shipped from Japan to the US, so I thought ‘why not push a bit harder and produce a magazine? We can do it!’ And that’s how it started…


What is your background? Are you an artist yourself?

It is the networked spirit of internet culture that fascinated me. My background was in publishing and music, and my arts background can be described as the mail art movement. Both mail art, and art made through the postal network, really fascinated me: not just because it was so radical that everyone could be an artist, make art and make a show; it was fun for me, but mostly I was fascinated by the possibilities of inter-exchanging art on specific topics all over the world: the ephemeral network. And when the digital network arrived, I thought ‘wow – so here it is’!

That moment meant that I finally had the technological means to realise a synthesis of all these different things! From the very beginning, the concept of the magazine was to be a node. I never wanted to make the most beautiful magazine about everything digital in the world, but instead a very good magazine that was complementary to other efforts happening elsewhere: to create a – potentially important – node in a networked environment. This network consisted of nodes that were interconnected, shared and exchanged P2P [peer-to-peer] reviews, content contacts and created a bit of business to keep alive. Several of my initial contacts still exist, but many changed and do different things now.


Since 1993, print publishing has gone through major shifts, and I sometimes wonder why Neural is still a magazine, and not only digital or Print on Demand?

Print on Demand (POD), in my view, should be an opportunity or an alternative for printing rather than an indicator for a philosophical shift. Printing Neural is not about printing a few copies. Neural is a worldwide distributed magazine, with distributors in the US, Australia and in Asia and Europe. So in my case it’s not about saving on the initial printing costs, which POD is mainly about.

For me, printing a magazine in 2009 is something completely different compared to 1993. In the past 16 years, this brainchild of mine has become something I feel really attached to. It’s a sort of statement to continue to print it, while it remains a challenge to find the right form, and a sustainable business model.

At first, we tried to publish bimonthly, but after three issues we decided that that was too much for us. We found a publisher and produced six issues, and then they went bankrupt due to a bad distribution agreement. We ended up not being paid for two issues.

We learned our lesson: if you really want to do something like this, you should do it by yourself. In 1997 I restarted by myself, since my initial Neural partner wanted to pursue his own music career. The challenge was to constantly question and change every issue, and to try and survive. I’ve seen many friends’ magazines die since 1997. Maybe it was easier for me than for others because I was dealing with technology, so I was aware of some changes to come, but still it was continuously critical for Neural.


So what about the online presence of Neural. How did that develop and complement the magazine?

Well, at some point I realised that the online ‘thing’ updated every couple of weeks did not function. It was too much work and not worth it at the same time. I stopped for a few weeks and then thought if I continued doing it had to be daily – or not at all. It would not have made sense otherwise. No one would have returned to the site.

In 2000 I started with the new daily updated website – three news posts and one music review every day. I figured out it was not only about publishing, but also about networking. It was about being present and being visible as a node, and about playing an active role in the community – and at the same time being recognised by it. I saw it as my only chance as a publisher to make everyone aware of the online edition. Every time I published online content, I sent the people whose work I’d talked about, or the musician I’d reviewed, an e-mail and asked them if they could post a link back to Neural. I did that every day for years, and it paid off! Now Neural has an average seven out of ten page range in Google ranking, and I've accumulated almost 15,000 incoming links.


From a readers’ point of view, how would you describe the difference between the magazine and the online platform?

Of course there is a strategy. In the beginning print was king and online was an accessory. Now it’s exactly the opposite, and I want to reward the readers of the magazine, my sponsor community: all the content online is free of charge, while you have to pay for the magazine subscription. From the start, the printed magazine had some content that is not online. All the interviews and the articles are only in print, while the rest (reviews, news) is also online.


This sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of passion, but how has Neural, and how have you, managed to survive economically?

I am doing much less myself now than in the beginning. I’ve learned to delegate as much as possible, and to focus on the things that only I can do to be a serious player. I would like to delegate more, but I still need to do a lot of things myself due to financial restraints. Neural is not my main income. I’ve always seen it as an entry point for additional work, even if it might sound absurd to do so much work paid for by other work. I’m very passionate about the magazine, but if I only did Neural I would get too obsessed. It’s like a magic portal to access other inspiring opportunities.

Another priceless thing is the experience I gained in the past years about how to do ‘it’ and how to play with ‘it’. I manage the magazine three times a year, and actually there is also the printed Italian edition that also should be published three times a year, but I’m currently slowing that down to concentrate on the English one.


Looking back on the many years that you have worked on Neural, is there anything you think you would do very differently with the experience that you’ve got now?

One of the few things I’m good at is writing, and writing theory. I consider myself more of a theorist or a writer – publishing magazines is a very specific skill. But, for example, I would find it difficult to be an artist. I’ve done a few projects over the past years like Google Will Eat Itself and Amazon Noir together with Paolo Cirio and Ubermorgen. I try to do them collaboratively and to maintain the role of the one who develops the theory and context. I’m more into organising things, bringing things together. Even curating is still an esoteric practice for me. I did it a few times, but I think you need to go deep into it if you want to do it well – it’s a very different concept.


You mentioned a sustainable economic model – what does that look like for Neural and yourself?

Neural is a cultural association but receives no public or private funding. In Italy, the funding situation is a very difficult and complicated one. Actually, it’s hell, mainly for (contemporary) arts, because there is so much ancient cultural heritage in Italy that most of the money goes there. To receive funding, you need to do more than just put in a funding application. You need to invest a lot of time in lobbying decision makers. For me, to receive funding in Italy would be like succeeding in being part of a system, which I have always refused because I wanted to concentrate on what I was doing.

Income is generated by paid subscriptions and advertisements, both online and offline. I have some hardcore subscribers who more or less subscribe continuously. It’s more than money. It’s also about the recognition of the work you’re doing. And since they have to renew their subscription annually, it’s also about renewing their trust. The ads are a more complicated story. You have to be another person to sell them (writing is completely different from selling), but at some point I realised I needed to take responsibility and it just needed to be done.

On- and offline work are totally different of course. I am not asking for online subscriptions, or donations, because that would not work at the moment. But there is a lifetime subscription: you pay 250 Euros once, so it’s like a seven or eight year subscription, but it lasts until the end of your life! It’s a kind of donation, but a substantial one, given that the annual subscription fee in Europe is 31 Euros, and worldwide $55. It’s all shipped priority, so subscribers in the US receive the magazine within a week or ten days after shipping.


Back to the online/offline relationship – how active is your community, and how much does it influence the on- and offline Neural content and your writing?

The blog is not a classic blog because I don’t allow comments. I had to make choices – and I decided not to do it. Firstly, because I’m doing a printed magazine, I didn’t want to pretend too much. Secondly, if I allow comments I cannot spend enough time working on the magazine. But there is a community that’s dealing with me continuously. It’s not as lively as it would be if I had a comment function on the blog, but still there is a Neural community. People do get in touch, to ask for advice and tips about what to check out where, to give feedback and to suggest content. And of course there is a possibility of face-to-face meetings, for example at festivals.


Have any of the social networks changed your way of publishing?

I tried to avoid Facebook for a long time, but then surrendered in November last year (2008). I had to check it out at some point, to find out more and to understand it on a personal level, rather than relying on second-hand information from others. Although I think that, for many reasons, it’s a very dangerous thing, it’s a very peculiar model of establishing personal contacts. I started using it in November 2008 and now it’s June 2009, so it’s been seven months. About a month after joining I established the Neural group and after six months it has nearly 1,000 members already – all of whom of course I know.

I’m trying to get inspired by every new thing I am doing. Facebook was inspiring and useful for a few reasons, but it did not change a lot for me. I learnt for example that people who’re using Facebook reply quicker via FB than via mail, and it is very useful for me to remember birthdays of friends. But it didn’t change the way of producing or distributing the printed magazine or the blog.

Having had a network before, the whole online social networking thing just means that there are new tools facilitating implementation or management of the same network, but none of them seriously changes it. I think the richness of each of us is our own personal network, not the platform. So you’ll probably use a platform, switch to another one in a few years when there is a better one, but it is the network that counts, and how you deal with it. I’ve experienced highs and lows in publishing, and during one of these lows a friend of mine told me to use my own network to solve the problem. Very valuable advice! It is this concept or modus operandi that has changed our lives one way or the other.


Going back to the concept of nodes, and the magic portal function of Neural that you mentioned – many opportunities (like just recently being research fellow at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam) are linked to Neural.

To continue on networks – Magnet is another really important thing for me. I co-founded the network of magazines dealing with electronic culture in 2002. Our motto was that it was better to collaborate than to compete with each other, and we started to share knowledge, share and exchange experiences and support each other. Eleven editors are part of it, among them five really active members – Neural, Mute Magazine from London, Springerin from Vienna, Zehar from San Sebastian and 3/4 Revue review from Bratislava. After the first, thanks to the great and inspiring work of Nat Muller, we've edited another two Magnet Readers on the offline/online publishing relationship.

We are operating within a really simple organisational model for exchange. But it might be time for a change, to include more editors and move towards a platform for exchange for publishers who deal with digital culture, especially in print, and who want to share this peculiar moment of change and passage.

This also led to the beautiful opportunity of my research fellow work in Rotterdam, hosted by the Lectorate 'Communication in a Digital Age' directed by Florian Cramer. The incredible support I had from the whole staff is leading me to finish a whole book about the topic that will be published early next year. They also organised a three-day international conference around the topics of my research called "PRINT/PIXEL" and that was a unique and very involving experience for a researcher.


Is Magnet (Magazine Network of Electronic Cultural Publishers) a European network, and do you receive any European funding?

It wasn’t meant to be European but it kind of is. There were and are members from Portugal, the Czech Republic, Latvia, among others, but also one from Mexico. Regarding European funding, we tried that at first but we were not good at organising the whole funding issue. Being a network is most of all a learning process.

As a network, we learned from the first Magnet reader. It came about in a period when there was no activity, and the network was about to die. We received an invitation by CCA in Glasgow to participate in a conference and present a reader we were loosely assembling. At that point I thought that this was the only opportunity to get it done, and that was the end of the whole idea of democratic decision-making, of discussing everything together. In the end I’m with my friend Geert from Staalplaat label who once said: production is not democratic. I think he’s right!

I wanted to go ahead with the reader, so I suggested to lead on it, to coordinate and take decisions, and asked if others wanted to join in. Two members actively supported the reader, two more agreed to the process but decided not to actively support because they were too busy. It was fair and it worked – we published the book just in time for the conference, and the network had re-established itself again. Every project is treated differently, and we did something else with Mute. Unfortunately, the kind of established way of working in our digital culture environment where we meet, then set up mailing list, and when home (plan to) start developing things, hardly every works. Not even if manuals have been established, because everyone returns to their daily routine.


What does the organisational structure of Neural look like, and how is its content decided upon?

I have been doing monographic issues for two or three years now. It is me who decides on the content, inspired by meeting and talking to other people. Another important factor in continuing and shaping Neural was to receive feedback. Compliments were really important as a moral support and motivation, but from the very start onwards I was also looking for critical feedback, and for critics. Critics are free advisors, and very important for a project like Neural.

I decide on new topics by observing what’s happening, breathing what’s going on, and checking if it is something that can be packed into a Neural issue. A few years ago, for example, there was a big China hype. I thought I should be doing something around that topic, but first had to examine critically if I was not only driven by my own curiosity and would be able to get enough content. It took one year, but I finally published a (hopefully) interesting issue. One of the few reasons I think that Neural survived for such a long time is that I really took care over the quality. Many magazines that just remained of average quality were killed by the amount of information that you can find online. If you maintain a very high level of quality that’s a different story…


Is it difficult to find contributors for Neural?

Neural has about nine contributors at the moment. Firstly it’s difficult to find good writers because there are many beautiful people with very good ideas who are simply not so skilled in writing. And secondly, my business model does not allow me to pay them a lot, just a symbolic contribution. So it’s also a question of being prepared that contributors will start immediately but stop after a short while, either because they get bored, or they want to use that experience to continue something else. This is totally fine for me, but it means that I have to be prepared that contributors, and also collaborators for different tasks, won’t last forever!

I do receive requests for writing and contributing to Neural, but it’s crucial to check if it’s the right people for Neural. Also, I am looking for writers rather than for academics, because their focus is not as open as I would need it to be to cover a broad range of topics. However, they might be involved in certain topics that Neural covers – but that’s a different thing to a more regular contributor.


A penultimate purely hypothetical question: 1993 and 2009… if you were starting the same enterprise today, would you still be publishing a printed magazine?

Probably I would not start to print something now. I would experiment with all the online facilities available and familiarise myself with production techniques online. I would probably make some experiments in print but it would be the antipode of what I did when I started in 1993. Of course printing and online are at the antipodes compared to when I started!

At the same time there is so much space for experiment in both print and online and almost countless possibilities for making and producing things. I want to build on the cultural capital that I have acquired in print over such a long time, and don’t want to switch anymore. From an economic point of view it would be a wise choice to completely switch to online publishing. But that would not be a challenge for me anymore. I am not saying that I will be printing things forever, but as long as it is still interesting to play with print – the physical thing – to experiment with these different relationships of something completely virtual and something much more physical, I will keep doing it. (See also: The Persistance of Paper)


Finally, do you think that Neural had an influence on the lack of (print) journalism concerning digital arts and media culture? Do you think Neural had an impact in informing and transforming that kind of journalism?

I hope that it increased the understanding – that is part of the mission if you’re one of the few dealing with the conceptual side of media arts and culture. Given the long time period of Neural I do hope that I have had at least some influence, and inspired a few things that happened. These are also the indicators for success if you look at Neural as an active node within a network! If you are a node, you’re sending out waves all over and it is often difficult to tell whom these waves reach. It is true that digital arts and culture was a very closed field and did not succeed in breaking the walls to reach beyond its own scene to the broader contemporary arts and culture.

In the beginning that was due to technical issues – curators, journalists and critics just did not understand why or how something worked and what the value of digital arts was. What happens now is a process of legitimisation through practice and production of hybrid work, which has consequences beyond the digital and is not based on technical innovation only. I find that very important because it increases the accessibility of media arts and it leads to ‘real’ waves and consequences as we namely did in GWEI and Amazon Noir, and plenty of artists do today. Netart seems to be developing along this line.

This development looks similar to what happened with video art at its beginning. However, it’s a different time now, and I do think that new generations are very open for digital arts. Maybe they are less prepared, maybe less critical and less radical; but when you mix an audience of young people and people in their 40s and 50s, you get an interesting mix. The end of the 20th century has started a kind of passage and media arts should become even more interesting in the future!


Many thanks, Alessandro, for your insights into the ever-evolving world of digital culture!