Charlotte Frost reports from the international conference of ISEA (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) in Istanbul.
Current economic and environmental climates have made sustainability an urgent issue, while technologies which can at times reduce costs and environmental impact have risen exponentially in development and deployment. For example, I recently worked on a set of instructional videos for a-n looking at how artists might use Blogging, Twitter and Facebook to support their work as they have become such an embedded part of many artists' practice. Therefore I was excited to host a panel of experts talking on shared digital ways of working in the arts as part of ISEA2011. This year, the international conference of ISEA (the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) was held at the imposing Sabanci University in Istanbul and contained a number of panels, workshops and paper sessions that picked up on an ecological thread (which will be expanded more thoroughly at next year's ISEA in Albuquerque). Our panel, Share Workers: The Techniques and Meanings of Sustainable Digital Networks, was no exception.
It comprised of Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield; Dougald Hine of The University Project; Jack Hutchinson of AIR; Bridget McKenzie of Flow Associates and Marcus Romer of Pilot Theatre. We were keen to discuss - from both practical and philosophical perspectives - how artists and arts organisations can use digital technology to consolidate connections and even begin to rewire our educational, environmental and economic circuitry. We were also hopeful we might reach out beyond the conference walls via Twitter (and a #shareisea hashtag). Unfortunately there were several snags to this. The wifi in the building itself required you to regularly re-enter access details and thanks to the time difference, our 9.00am panel was actually on at 7.00am UK time. That said, we did manage to stir up debate both within and outside of our session as a result of the fact Marcus Romer, who had chosen to Skype his participation precisely for reasons of sustainability, was still required to pay a full conference fee. This requirement was controversial to say the least and so some of our discussion centred around the speed at which this type of policy will have to change. How much longer can we justify flying to a conference, especially when our own work promotes freer discussion with less environmental impact?
For my own part, one of the things I'm glad the panel to developed was a criticality to using online networks. There is a great deal of misplaced euphoria surrounding the connectivity provided by digital communication technologies and with the recent cuts by Arts Council England, many organisations who have been at the forefront of critiquing post-internet culture and digital evangelism have had their operations substantially reduced. So after Jack and Marcus carefully explained many of the benefits of targeted group activity, it was great to have Ruth, Bridget and Dougald look into the politics behind the adoption of shared and sustainable methods of practice. It was a useful reminder of how hollow contemporary buzz words like 'accessibility' and 'participation' can actually be, and that sharing for sharing's sake has little intrinsic value. We were also lucky to be joined by an audience ready and willing to discuss their own experiences.
In a bid to round-up some highlights for non-attendees, I asked the panel if they could report on their ISEA experiences. Their responses follow.
Ruth Catlow is an artist and curator working at the intersection of art, technology and social change. As co-founder (with Marc Garrett) of Furtherfield, a grass roots media arts organisation, online community and gallery (formerly HTTP Gallery) in North London, she works with international artists, hackers, curators, musicians, programmers, writers, activists and thinkers. Her current focus is on practices that engage an ecological approach with an interest in the interrelation of technological and natural processes. Ruth has been involved with developing networked participatory arts infrastructures such as Visitors Studio and NODE.London. She is currently developing a new partnership initiative with Furtherfield and Drake Music drawing on existing knowledge and experience and emerging models of peer to peer organisation and production. Ruth has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and is currently running degrees in Digital Art and Design Practice and developing a new MA in Fine Art and Environment at Writtle School of Design.
The mere act of sharing perspectives and experiences with the people around the table at the Share Workers panel modelled the challenges that face us as we grapple with deepening notions of sharing in different contemporary fields. What is our motivation? Marketing or mutual benefit? Or both?
Bridget MacKenzie described strategies that supported peer-learning and paragogy (a new term to describe peer-learning facilitated by social media style platforms) to develop distinctive local, social technologies in Indian villages, while Jack described an array of new social media channels and devices that engaged UK artists and simultaneously raised the profiles of a-n's work and services.
I talked about how partnership on artistic production between Drake Music and Furtherfield had led to a desire to explore the benefits of deeper organisational sharing and then talked in more detail about WeShareDigital - a proposal for a new form of cultural production that enables arts to lead on digital innovation. This collaboration draws on both organisations' experience in participatory arts; Furtherfield's knowledge of artistic online communities, social media and Free Open Source Software (FOSS) technologies/cultures and Drake Music's inclusive, innovative and accessible practices in music and assistive technology. We are working to explore and test how open and collaborative (rather than competitive) working at an infrastructural level - between small, distinctive cultural organisations - can improve and extend access and participation in the arts.
WeShareDigital is a research project exploring new forms of cultural production, drawing on Free and Open Source Software production, in which people identify shared values and needs, pool skills, knowledge and resources, (and attract additional resources) to create the new things that they need. It sets out to solve the problems of limited capacity by building networks of trusted techies and small cultural orgs.
The discussion was cleverly framed by Charlotte to deal with the what and how of sharing; extracting examples of practice and at once uncovering some great questions about the pros and cons of sharing. For instance, it occurred to me that there is still confusion about the difference between access and inclusion. We can think about it also as a difference between broadcast and more distributive (many-to-many) forms of communication enabled by the Internet. By streaming live presentations or archiving video documentation from conferences, we can provide access to content, making it available to anyone with an Internet connection and (arguably) reducing the carbon footprint of gatherings. People can access inspirational presentations by charismatic speakers (think of the success of Ted Talks). However, a single authoritative speaker is privileged, and opportunities for debate, dialogue and learning together are cut out. Sitting around a table together still wins for rich dialogue and sharing, unless you have a large budget to spend on corporate video conferencing suite. I am particularly sensitive to these matters as we have been thinking about ways to develop environmentally sensitive ways to meet with people around the world in our Rich Networking programme.
Mindful sharing with people and contexts you value is a very powerful thing. And this leads us to a connected questions. Even once you have settled on an accessible and inclusive format for your gathering. Who do you want to share with? The FOSS community has long debated the ethics of sharing (or not) the fruits of ones labour with people who may use it for their own profit (and possibly to the detriment of others). This is a DEEP question. What does who want to share with who, and why? It is a question about the kind of society we want to live in. What kind of society we want to sustain. And one that is central to the WeShare project.
Dougald Hine is a writer and social activator, the founder of Space Makers Agency and co-founder of School of Everything, the Dark Mountain Project and the Institute for Collapsonomics. He is currently working on a project to create a new kind of university, based in central London. He is also working on a book about "First Life" and "the age of networked disruption".
For me, this panel was an opportunity to reflect on how the projects I've been part of over the past few years have emerged from a collaborative online culture - one in which the technology increasingly recedes into the background, while the new social customs and practices built around it become more important. As I spoke about in the session, this shift is something I can trace in my own work.
As a contributing editor to the Pick Me Up email magazine, from 2004-06, I was focused on producing online content - although the magazine was always an excuse to do something more interesting than check your inbox. So we were discovering the collaborative potential of networked technologies for getting together in First Life, rather than spending more and more time in front of screens. Still, if you asked what PMU was, the answer was "a weekly email".
I spent the next few years even more deeply entangled with technology, as co-founder of a web startup, School of Everything. But the point where I really saw network-based share-working take off was when I stepped back from that in early 2009, and set up a series of projects which were less technology focused, but facilitated by the use of social media tools. With Dark Mountain, we've put out a series of old-school print publications which were only made possible by crowd-funding platforms like IndieGoGo. With Space Makers Agency, it was the way that a Ning network made our informal meetups legible and findable that allowed them to seed the creation of a company based around a DIY approach to regeneration, based on projects which are themselves accelerated by the use of Twitter and other social tools.
In these projects, technology manages to be both essential and trivial - and for me, this is at the heart of "share-working" - the emergence of new social customs and practices (or the reemergence of old ones) facilitated by technology, suited to a time of economic disruption and precarity, but grounded in ways of being human which pre-date and (to some extent) resist the logic of networks and systems.
Jack Hutchinson is an artist, writer and educator. A specialist on the role of digital technology within the visual arts, he is Communications Coordinator for AIR: Artists Interaction and Representation through a-n The Artists Information Company. His writing has featured in a diverse range of publications, including Dazed and Confused, Garageland, AnOther Man, Twin Magazine, a-n Magazine and Schweizer Kunst. He is an active campaigner for artistic, legislative and economic measures that enhance artists' working lives and professional status. Hutchinson is also facilitator of the AIR Activists network - active members of AIR recruited to proactively contribute to raising the profile and widening recognition of artists. He has exhibited across the UK and is also a visiting lecturer at a range of HE institutions in England.
How can share working enhance the lives of individual artists? My talk at ISEA 2011 aimed to explain how AIR is facilitating new dialogue between individuals and organisations, acting as the catalyst for new engagement and discussions that will enhance the working lives of visual and applied artists.
AIR's campaigns and advocacy were discussed, with reference to our use of digital communications as a means of coordinating fast and direct action. Examples included our campaign for access to art education, which utilised Twitter and in particular the tag #AIRmarch26 to assemble artists from around the UK at the TUC march earlier this year in London. Digital campaigns including the Ai Weiwei and Artist's Resale Right petitions were also explained.
Disseminating practical advice to artists, and AIR's commitment to an inclusive framework, was explained. AIR Activists (regionally based, pro-active members of AIR) have delivered advice sessions across the country throughout 2011, with debates shared live on Twitter using event-specific tags. Video of each event is also streamed on YouTube, with the content archived to encourage continued discussion and critical debate.
Notions of collaboration were discussed in relation to AIR's engagement with key organisations. These include Arts Council England, Artquest, Axis, DACS and Turning Point. Another key point of discussion was AIR's enhanced international profile. Already a member of the European Council of Artists, AIR is continuing dialogues with the International Association of Art and is commissioning new research into international representative bodies for artists. We are also in the final stages of agreeing a memorandum of understanding with The Scottish Artists Union.
Introducing AIR as the voice for artists, I explained that these new collaborations, dialogues and services are providing our members with a platform for their views and opinions to be heard by key decision makers. AIR is harnessing a new solidarity between artists, united in a common cause - to enhance their working lives and professional status.
Bridget McKenzie has 20 years experience in delivering innovative education in museums, galleries and libraries. Her current position is founding director of Flow Associates, a cultural consultancy based in London and Delhi. Before establishing Flow in 2006, Bridget held the post of Head of Learning at the British Library where she implemented a new learning strategy based on creative enquiry. Previous roles include Education Officer for Tate (1993-1998), lead consultant for the Clore Duffield Artworks national art education awards and first co-ordinator of widening participation for the University of the Arts London. Bridget is regarded as a leading thinker on the links between learning, culture, ecology and technology. She writes and speaks on how cultural organisations can tackle the ecological crisis and is working on a book 'The Learning Planet' about models of learning that create 'the people the future needs'. She is interested in how cultural organisations use digital tools to enable sharing between creative practitioners and the public.
Marcus Romer is the Artistic Director of Pilot Theatre, based at York Theatre Royal. He adapted and directed Looking for JJ, by Anne Cassidy, which won the TMA award for best production in 2008. His production of Lord of the Flies for Pilot Theatre has had five national UK tours and received a TMA award nomination and won a Manchester Evening News award. His production of Beautiful Thing won two Manchester Evening News Awards in 2005. He is also a published playwright and he adapted and directed the world premiere of cult classic Rumble Fish. He adapted Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy, and Fungus the Bogeyman, by Raymond Briggs. He is currently working on the screenplay for 'The Knife That Killed Me' . This will be a new feature film for Universal Pictures. He created the opening event at the 2007 IIFA Bollywood Oscars at Sheffield Arena, for a live TV audience of 500 million. He has attended TED twice and set up and led the Shift Happens Conferences.
First published: a-n.co.uk December 2011
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