Interview with Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg
email October/November 2000
Steve Dietz: WonderWalker is essentially a title you came up with for your project in relation to the idea of the wunderkammer. What does it mean to you?
Martin Wattenberg: The WonderWalker, to me, is a way of using collections to communicate. I found that in working with Marek on the project, we would often have conversations conducted by placing icons and web pages on the map. Rather than talking by e-mail or phone, we'd talk using icons and links. I think that pre-museum collections often work this way: they are designed to communicate information using the collected objects as vocabulary.
Marek Walczak: You have Peter the Great, travelling in Europe in the 17th century, picking up all kinds of curiosities, coming back to St. Petersburg and dumping them in a palace. Then he imports European intellectuals to start his first university, most of whom were in their 20s. The grafting of a new system of ideas onto an ancient culture, it's a bit like the internet!
Steve: What have you learned about the history of wunderkammer, memory palaces, cabinets of curiosity and their ilk in the course of creating the WonderWalker?
Marek: Memory palaces, as written up by Francis Yates' The Art of Memory and in Jonathan Spence's The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, created equivalencies between ideas and imagined spaces. Their purpose was to retain a large "world" of thought prior to cheap printing and paper. A world of common thought shared by individuals. At a certain point, I guess, the contents of intellectual thought exceeded even the memory systems devised to hold them, and as hierarchical methods of knowledge took over, it was no longer necessary to hold "everything." You could proceed up and down the hierarachy, like the classification system of a library. And yet, we ourselves hold information in a non-hierarchical manner, perhaps our own "world" is more like cabinets of curiosities.
Martin: I looked at how the concept of the wunderkammer is being applied today. I found a surprising number of personal references on the web, whose tone was, more than anything else, nostalgic. This nostalgia inspired me to create a social space that, although public, could allow for personal and individual interpretation.
Steve: What's the connection of collecting to memory?
Martin: Memory involves not just recording facts, but also inference, rehearsal, and building a context for thought. The WonderWalker helps with all of these: the map is a context, the relations between objects help you infer meaning, and the process of collection forces you to rehearse your memory.
Marek: It's not so much memory itself as objects of thought. For me, coming from architecture, buildings are concrete expressions of ideas. A collection of idea-objects representing a "world"? When you go to a show, you try to get immersed, you see people engaging with some "other"--that which isn't themselves.
Steve: Describe your collaborative process. How do you think about your roles in the process?
Marek: Martin and I meet once a week for lunch, we always order the same curries. We e-mail constantly. I create fixed images, Martin creates programlets of "actions." We show each other things we find interesting and have short conceptual discussions. In everything we do you see a fraction of what we thought had potential. It's like making soup, you create a rich mix of ingredients to work with, then select what's freshest.
Martin: I agree with Marek's characterization. I think we are both people who enjoy exploring many ideas at once. What you see in the WonderWalker is a particular constellation from a very large sky!
Steve: What is the role of the audience in relation to your work on the WonderWalker?
Marek: A couple of years ago we had been toying with the idea of replacing language on the web with 3D hieroglyphs. To read would mean to travel in virtual space. The problem was how do you create meaningful shapes? In the WonderWalker links are represented by icons that people draw themselves. Also the spatial relationship of links is important, as you can create areas based on particular themes. Martin and I used the beta as a sort of messageboard between ourselves. It became apparent that we were creating a social space as well. We would add links based upon their relationship to the project, then others would add theirs to ours.
Martin: The social space is critical. As Hannah Arendt says, actions performed in public are generally superior to actions performed in private. When people add an icon, they know that others will look at their comments and choices, and that makes them work and collect with a higher standard in mind.
Steve: How would you describe your level of engagement with the idea of open source software, broadly defined?
Martin: I'm only slightly engaged with open source software. I've worked on some projects with Rhizome.org that are open source. I think open source is important, and I'd like to do more. As in my answer to the previous question, I believe that when people know they are being watched by others, including the programmers, they perform at the highest level of excellence.
Marek: Not sure if I am engaged with open-source as much as the idea of self-organizing systems. I am designing a hat shop today for Amy Downs, who tends to change her shop decor every season. Instead of creating a design I am designing a variable system of components. One season there is a wall of flagpoles (beneath hats), the next season a bunch of animal masks. Inventing potentials for social interaction!