Rachel Baker: tigertxt

Matthew Fuller

This interview was carried out by email with Rachel Baker over July and August 2001 to follow up the tigertxt project, an SMS network created in collaboration with the Hull City FC fanzine, Amber Nectar.

MF: you recently completed 'Tigertxt' a project working with Amber Nectar, the football fanzine of Hull City to produce a temporary SMS network for the zine and for the fans of the club. What kind of situation was Hull City in when the project started, how did the connection with Amber Nectar come about?

RB: I'm just going to start with a bit of context. The football industry in the UK became a point of fascination for me for several reasons -  it is a massively important motor for the broadcasting industry and hence the Internet industry. It drives huge markets for each, predicated on feeding the passion and identity needs of the football fans. But the Internet has definitly brought some by-product activity along with it. The fans can very quickly form communities and start to self-organise. Corruption runs rife throughout the football clubs and coupled with the fact that the Premiership clubs are hoovering up all the money, the lower division clubs are prone to bankruptcy. This leaves the fans wanting to act, and Internet has helped many of them to form co-ops and independent supporters organisations. This is what happened at Hull City FC, a victim of management corruption and the unfair economy of the football industry. The project started at the point when Hull City FC had been 'rescued' or bought by Adam Pearson, former commercial director at Sheffield Utd. That meant I'd missed the boat on the momentum created by the crisis, when fans didn't know whether they would have a football club or not in their city. I went to couple of Tigers Co-Op meetings with the intention of documenting the process of fans self-organising. This is where I met Les Motherby, accidental media spokesperson on behalf of the fans and editor of Amber Nectar, (Hull City's ubiquitous fanzine). My agenda was to get involved in some local community actions in Hull and the football club situation provided this but I needed someone to introduce me to the whole narrative. The idea for the mobile phone platform was originally intended as a means of developing a communications system for a specific group of people that acted as a gateway between other mediums e.g Internet and print. AmberNectar already covered both of these and they had a presence that was needed for people to relate to.

MF: Why did the project last for a fixed period of time? Where there advantages in this?

RB:The project hasn't finished as a far as I'm concerned ... we still have some SMS credits left and there is still the possibility of getting some sponsorship for more SMS credits. There are no advantages in the project being temporary because the subscribers don't get a chance to experiment with it and feel confident to use it for their own ends.

MF: Within the context of the Tigertxt work another initiative Twinfan came about, what was this? In what ways did it work?

RB: Twinfan was set up because I was showing Tigertxt at a digital arts festival in Maribor, Slovenia and I decided it would be fun to use the SMS gateway to get Maribor fans connected with Hull fans. I wanted to attract local Maribor football fans into the gallery. But it didn't really work, probably because there was no real reason for Maribor fans to be interested in Hull fans, PARTICULARLY when invited to be in the context of an arts festival. I was just playing with the notion of football as an international language - which it definitely is...

MF: How did the project work in relationship to Amber Nectar and to other media covering the club? What kind of things did it allow to be said?

RB: Tigertxt allowed for a raw, personal text commentary by Les at live matches. It also allowed for me to send the odd STATS text, comparing social statistics gleaned from Hull City Council's annual report with Hull City FC stats. It allowed fans to direct their communication at players. SMS is obviously limited as a medium for expressing ideas through language, you only have 160 characters. But football fans are well able to express their feelings simply and directly through terrace chants, which can agitate and affect the state of play very powerfully. But Hull City fans were not in a very agitational frame of mind when we started Tigertxt. They'd had enough of provocative opinions about corruption etc, and just wanted a bit of success on the field. Also Amber Nectar saw the project as a 'service' for their subscribers rather than a political or cultural tool. When I began thinking about this project there were 2 phenomena that I had decided were significant and I wanted to converge them. 1)empowerment of the football fans in relation to clubs 2)the mobile phone as a tool for producing localised zine media . Evidence for the first phenomena rested on things like the formation of Tigers Co-Op on the part of fans to rescue Hull City FC from extinction due to corrupt management of the Club. I was impressed at seeing football fan culture mobilising itself through new media technologies i.e internet and phone.
However, the football fan is not generally politically motivated, only specifically (like road hauliers) - they just want their team to win. They are willing to be exploited as long as the team succeeds and as long as their identitification with a community and with the pursuit of glory, remains intact. They will only get political if the team consistently fails. (i.e Corrupt management of a successful team would not be cause for political activism, its just the norm) For a brief moment Hull city fans were asking questions about the club and even the local council.
But that moment has passed. Evidence for the second phenomena rests on the mobile phone used in drug dealing, co-ordinating activist demonstrations, etc. That the mobile phone could work in conjunction with street publishing media i.e the poster, the flyer, the zine, was an untested theory. I just instinctively believe that it could given the right context to do it with - football culture in Hull, may not be the right context. However, the financial interests invested in the technological infrastucture by big TelCo's mitigates against the mobile phone being used as a medium for zine publishing from street to web. Yes, we can cheaply build independent sms gateway servers for the convergence of web and mobile phone and this is exciting, but circumnavigating the owners of cellular infrastructures is just not immediately possible. Having to bulk-buy text messages is proving expensive. DIY zine media is not supposed to be expensive. Mobile phone and football culture both exist within the TelCo's industry and the football industry, and the financial agendas are too huge and overwhelming. With merchandising, Sky, Cable TV, Interactive TV, Internet and media rights, football is big business. The football fan is now viewed as a consumer - they even view themselves as consumers. (When encountering Tigertxt many fans immediately asked 'how much does it cost me?') Its hardly surprising, and the heavy commercialisation of football will get even more extreme with New Media channels looking to further exploit the passion and brand loyalty of the fan.
In the delivery of information the football fan is expecting a service wether it be from a fanzine or from Total Football. The fanzines are beginning to see themselves as a professional service and buy into glossy presentation. Ultimately their unofficial, critical, independent, uncensored status is under threat - since the desire to make it pay, and for club approval, is overwhelming. The independent fanzine editor of today is the official club website manager of tomorrow.
My intention for Tigertxt was as a mobile extension to the Amber Nectar fanzine, with location-based response via SMS feeding back into the Zine publication. (Mobile media by the fans for the fans - how trite!) But this reveals certain idealistic assumptions I made about fanzines, and fans being pro-actively engaged etc. The momentum behind Tigers Co-Op has fizzled out. There is no requirement for 'situationist' media intervention of any kind in Hull since there is no 'situation' any more. Hull City FC is in the play-offs. To believe that fans are interested in generating their own content through mobile phone media may be misguided. The 'service' model remains entrenched. They may as well wait for the official club mobile phone service to arrive. But also, designing an open, independent, 2 way send/receive mobile media model seems to be expensive aswell as romantic. I thought 2500pounds would be enough. Hmm. Amber Nectar could have published at least 5 issues or more of the fanzine with that. (As with streaming servers, the Arts Council may have to recognise the need for providing sms servers for the independent non-profit sector.) So what are the implications of going with the service model and developing Tigertxt as a commercial venture? Of course I was aware of the entrepreneurial possibilities when I began and I have no problems with people exploiting Tigertxt as a commercial venture but that means everybody must win, including Amber Nectar. And I guess it has to be done as a proper business proposal.

MF: There's a transition in work by people connected with irational and by others towards work that provides what might be called infrastructure. Programming for particular groups or uses; establishing setting up contexts in which other people carry out the 'expressive' work normally expected from those allocated the role of artist. How has this shift in activity been thought through?

RB: It s been thought through in as much as there is a desire on the part of Irational artists to find means of empowering groups rather than an individual artist and that networking technologies can be used effectively to this end, and public art institutions will fund this. However, it's always tricky if you are not part of the group in question. I imposed myself on the football fans in Hull so it didn't work out so well. I should have been braver, used my distance and non-integration to challenge them. I used to dislike the elevation of the Artist as sole proprietor of expression in public culture. But actually that might not be a bad system in some cases. There is a general human need for roles it seems. The artist can act as a provocateur or a lever to challenge these roles but it will always snap back superficially to some system that makes sense to everybody. You be the artist, I'll be the football fan.

MF: You say that you wanted in some way to get involved in some community politics in Hull. Why - or more precisely, in which ways - did you want to do this? You list a number of ways in which you could be categorically excluded from the fans. Was this basis for the attraction for some kind of involvement?

RB: Hull is an ugly, degaded and brutal place to be. Flat and exposed to cold winds on the North East coast it seems like a very inhospitable place to settle. I've never seen such poor housing and ugly town planning. If I was growing up there I would be very angry, miserable and psychologically disturbed. You just know that the place is run by a council with very little imagination and a lot of corruption. I'm not surprised Hull has some of the highest crime statistics. I'm not surprised there is a large Asylum Seeker community dumped there. I'm not surprised they are regularly harrassed. I AM surprised there's not a riot everyday. There is a tiny art community, mostly generated by the artcollege. But I noticed that the art produced there is rarely 'socially engaged.' It's actually very high quality, formally and conceptually. As if the best reaction to the poor social state of affairs in Hull is an absurdist and avant garde one, which I can sympathise with. But it's an escape or an avoidance. The escape for much of the local population in Hull is Hull City FC. This is essentially a civic concern at the heart of a community that will collectively and visibly demonstrate their anger at its potential disappearance but not their anger at the levels of poverty in the city or the quality of its housing. To me this is absurd and surreal. And interesting. The passion for the football club is NOT manipulated and not misconceived, it's very genuine. It's where all the love goes. A collective grassroots demonstration of any kind is attractive to me in a place like Hull. I look at the crowd in the stadium and I fantasise about the same crowd smashing up the horrible Princess Quay shopping centre. But all the energy and aggression is focussed on the game. And I think it's probably better that way. More creative in fact.

MF: What was the relationship with the commissioning organisations to the project and the wider context of the institutional framing of the work?

RB: The art college was the sponsor. The University of Lincoln and Humberside. Actually I was asked to facilitate a streaming media infrastructure that would available to students at HTBA but there were many problems to do with insufficient networks at HTBA and bureaucratic problems at the college. There was a bizarre moment involving the posters. These were to be displayed in pubs and directed at the football fans. But all the institutions involved in funding or supporting me required a mention on the poster somewhere. Instead of NTL or NIKE, the football fan was to be bombarded by logos from Arts Council of England, Hull Time-based Arts Yorkshire Arts, The Media Centre, Interactive Solutions, Hull College of ARt and Design. None of them seemd to realise that these institutional references would be offputting or unrecognisable to the average football fan. It was an uncomfortable clash but actually I'm more willing to go with it. I'd really like to produce a Hull City football shirt customised with all the above art institution logos.

MF: The shirt would be well smart! Would a good way round this, and perhaps a more clear way of understanding the kind of work you are doing be to say that the posters actually form an integral part of the work? It'd therefore be ludicrous to have a sponsor-logo stamped on it.

RB: Yes the posters are an integral part of the work, and I wouldn't have thought it needed spelling out, but maybe it does.

MF: You mention that some of the elements of the project weren't taken up in ways that you might have hoped for, or that the timing or the work maybe didn't fit with the ways things were moving with the relationship between the fans and the club. I wonder, given the rhetoric of community forming and empowerment that is often found in both talk about communications technology and 'socially engaged' or 'community' art, what are the way in which aspects of a multilayered work which are neither spectacular failures, nor spectacular successes can be acknowledged in the work and also talked about and thought through?

RB: Well, we have another season to come and I'm aleady receiving email from fans wanting to know if Tigertxt is resuming. Interviews like this one are important for me to reveal the work and I guess it could be published on the Amber Nectar website or the paper fanzine. I would like to leave the community empowerment rhetoric and concentrate on the existing language of the fans (very male and uncompromising) and just maybe challenge it slightly at odd angles.

MF: I was wondering more whether, in the context of the networks and contacts that you operate in there was enough space and time given to talking through and learning from projects in a more collective and possibly recorded way.

RB: Not really, especially if its football-related because in the context you are referring to there is no real interest in this culture. I suppose a formal presentation of the project at some point could happen if I organised it, expecially at HTBA, but I need to resolve a few issues with Amber Nectar before that happens.

MF: But, following that, in what ways do you think texting allows conventionalised uses of language to be challenged or played with?

RB: You are working with a limited and simplified use of english. You have to be sensitive to the existing linguistic codes of the target group i.e the Hull City FC fans. It's very specific, humour is needed, the right references etc. Thats why Les was doing most of the texting. But I like the idea of randomly dropping in 2 alien linguistic forms:- e.g hard social stats and intimate messages. But this might be too arty and disturbing for the linguistic order of things and be rejected by the Hull City fan fraternity. Still, we must all cope with rejection at times I suppose.

MF: I'd like to look at how the project is represented to those not in it. Obviously the primary focus is on the 'social sculpture' the the communicative dynamic that is opened up. But there's this other element, which how the work is then passed on in different circles and contexts. I'd like to thread this back to firstly, the way the work is related to the sponsoring institutions, and secondly, how this very lived network aesthetic that you work with shows itself outside of its immediate enactment.

RB: For the institutions, it's: Documentation Documentation Documentation I 'm really rubbish at this. I don't have a good relationship with the camera. But really I needed to record myself giving out the flyers to queueing fans and capturing the posters displayed in pubs and street. I may have to stage it.

MF: For the other part?

RB: Then there's the archiving of all SMS texts. Which I like a lot, but I had to suggest this to Interactive Solutions before they realised it was an obvious thing to do. Publishing the archive on the web is even more appealing as an artist, but not if you're a commercial client which is who Interactive Solutions mainly deal with I suppose. In mediation and documention, network and process-based art takes on the form of a narrative, a story, a myth which is very important to look after and sustain. But this is hard work and doesn't get funded properly.