Do it with others
This article by Furtherfield.org founders and Directors Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett was originally published in Coding Cultures: A Handbook, commissioned by Francesca da Rimini and d/lux/MediaArts in 2007. Catlow and Garrett discuss the origin and mission of Furtherfield.org and how its participatory platforms are art production tools.
Participatory Media in the Furtherfield Neighbourhood
The Furtherfield community utilises networked media to create, explore, nurture and promote the art that happens when connections are made and knowledge is shared across the boundaries of established art-world institutions and their markets, grass-roots artistic and activist projects and communities of socially-engaged software developers. This is a spectrum that engages from the maverick media-art-makers and small collectives of cross-specialist practitioners, to projects that critique and change dominant hierarchical structures as part of their art process.
This text will provide a brief background as to how Furtherfield, a non-profit organisation and community, came about and how it extends the DIY ethos of some early net art and tactical media, said to be motivated by curiosity, activism and precision,1 towards a more collaborative approach that Furtherfield calls Do It With Others (DIWO). In this approach, peers connect and collaborate, creating their own structures, using either digital networks or shared physical environments, making an art that is both made and distributed across a network. They engage with social issues whilst reshaping art and wider culture through shared critical approaches and shared perspectives.
As an artist-led group, Furtherfield has become progressively more interested in the cultural value of collaboratively developed visions as opposed to the supremacy of the vision of the individual artistic genius. This interest has led Furtherfield to develop artware (software platforms for generating art) that relies on the creative and collaborative engagement of its users (formally known as artists and their audiences) to make meaning. It explores the extent to which those who view and interact with work, including those from underrepresented groups, become co-producers in a network, rather than audience.2 To explain what we mean we will describe FurtherStudio, online art residencies, and VisitorsStudio, a platform for online multimedia collaboration, a particular strand of our activity that focuses on developing real-time online artware and projects. That is, work created and distributed in real time across the Internet.
1 Geert Lovink in an interview between David Garcia, Geert Lovink and Andreas Broeckmann, for The GHI of Tactical Media, Transmediale.01 Festival, Berlin, 2001.
A short history of Furtherfield - how and why it came about
From the early 80s, and well into the 90s, UK art culture was hijacked by the marketing strategies of Saatchi and Saatchi, a formidable force in the advertising world. The same company had been responsible for the successful promotion of the Conservative party (and conservative culture) that had led to the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Saatchi and Saatchi promoted art products from their own gallery under the populist brand of BritArt. Applying their marketing techniques and corporate power, the company accomplished a parallel coup within the British art scene, creating an elite of artists who embraced the commodification of their personalities alongside depoliticized artworks. BritArts dominance of the 90s UK art world-its galleries, markets and press-with a small number of high profile artists, delighted nouveau toffs but disempowered the majority of artists. It degraded and smothered artistic discourse by fueling a competitive and divisive attitude towards a shrinking public platform for their practice and the representation of their work.
Against this background, Furtherfields first website was a humble affair, created by the authors in 1996. It featured a small collection of artworks and short reviews. The main motivation was to share an enthusiasm for particular artworks with a wider audience than could be reached in the gated gallery spaces of London. This small website was first hosted at Backspace3 (1996-99), an informal production space, sited on the Thames at London Bridge. Backspace cyberlounge was open to people at all levels of technical experience and encouraged the sharing of ideas and technical resources, both in the physical space and across the globe via the Internet. It also acted as a venue for events and mini-conferences advocating a DIY consciousness and encouraging users to get their hands dirty with technology and its culture. The unspoken challenge to its members was that they should create something alternative to the dominant commercial culture on the Internet. It drew on the experience and involvement of its members (including the authors) in pirate radio and pirate television, digital bulletin boards and use of the streets as a canvas and art platform. It connected with the work of groups like I/O/D, Irational, Mongrel and Mute4 magazine to hack around everyday culture using public communication platforms to create independent art works and publications. In spite of its makeshift form, the works that were presented in early issues of Furtherfield gave rise to a lively and encouraging dialogue between artists around the world, including users of email lists such as Syndicate and Rhizome5 who were dedicated to the discussion of networked culture.
3 Backspace http://bak.spc.org
The Furtherfield neighbourhood do it with others
Ten years on, the Furtherfield community by which we mean its neighbourhood of sister-sites and projects has morphed and expanded with over 400 active contributors and a regular readership/audience of approximately 16,000 people around the world. Its activities and projects have steadily grown in scope and ambition. Its core activities of review, criticism and discussion have been directed, sustained and driven by the research, skills and energy of the Furtherfield team, and its diverse international group of users, on a mainly voluntary basis. Specific projects that facilitate in-depth collaboration between programmers, artists, and artist-programmers have received some public funding. Since 2004 Furtherfield has run a gallery for networked media art in North London called HTTP6 and has received regular core funding from Arts Council England to help consolidate and develop the sustainability of its activities.
In recent years the Furtherfield neighbourhood has initiated or participated in collaborative projects that experiment with and develop artworks, tools and structures of cooperation. These have been co-invented or adapted by artists, activists and technologists, many of whom (but not all) are committed to ideas of social change through their practice, being specifically concerned with the freedoms, openness and democratization of media and technology7. One such project is the NODE.London Season of Media Arts in London8, organised consensually by a large group of voluntary organisers. In March 2006 150 media arts projects took place in over forty London locations, as well as online in the form of exhibitions, installations, software, participatory events, performance-based work, and many other self-defining forms9. Its structure was inspired to some extent by the scale-free networks of the Internet, which, the science of networks tells us, maintain high levels of connectivity regardless of size10.
For many, however, the first need is for community to cultivate neighbours who interact, share, converse and play with each other11. FurtherStudio12, an exploratory project of real-time, online net art residencies, was launched in September 2003. This project was inspired by conversations with UK net artist, Jess Loseby. She spoke of her difficulties as a disabled mother of three, living in a rural area in accessing the resources and engaging in critical dialogues available to other artists and academics through the usual round of conferences and residencies. The FurtherStudio web facility offered a public window on the artists PC desktop as they worked13. Residencies lasted for three months, during which time the artists worked from their studios or homes creating works that incorporated and responded to visitors contributions. The chat and critical forum facilities enabled artists, critics and visitors to discuss the work made by the artists for the project in a series of live, globally accessible interviews and critical debates.
VisitorsStudio14 created in parallel to FurtherStudio, was envisaged as an experimental break-out space for visitors to the online residencies. The idea was to give visitors an insight into some of the artistic processes and concerns of resident artists by creating a social space online where they could experiment and learn together using some very simple audio-visual media mixing tools. VisitorsStudio was enthusiastically adopted by writers, programmers, artists and musicians. It provided an informal creative space that supported learning and fruitfully connected established practitioners with newbies, acting as a container, connector, and root node for artists and performers wishing to virtually get together and jam online15.
With VisitorsStudio the art is created and distributed in real time across the Internet by many participants linking together at the same time, who mix and remix files that they have created or found and subsequently uploaded to the common database. Alternatively, participants retrieve, manipulate and remix files that have been uploaded to the database by other contributors. The live conversations shared as they collectively create the work may also be considered a part of the performance-along with comments or occasional heckling from the audience. VisitorsStudio sits within rapidly shifting artistic territory of realtime art, software art, net art and participative and collaborative expression in contemporary, digitally-enabled remix culture. The late twentieth-century shift from material to immaterial culture, and the explosion in the rate of copying, duplicating and redistributing of cultural artefacts, means that this culture is now open to the influence of not just professional cultural producers but of the vernacular. The process is further accelerated by the popular adoption, mainly by sixteen to twenty-five year olds, of commercial (but free) spaces like Flickr, MySpace and YouTube16 which support the mass sharing of media files.
VisitorsStudio provides a space for informal, impromptu and ad hoc collaborations and a place to not just chat and store and share media files but also to extend the dialogue beyond text into a rich audio-visual medium: to work together on projects, and towards the co-production of a cultural landscape that has value and meaning for all participants.
Larger events are also organised that could be said to fall into two categories. The first is the showcase where established artists and musicians collaborate to create sophisticated performances that showcase their innovation and artistic concerns, such as the Month of Sundays17 series organised by Bristol-based Furthernoise.org18. The second approach is to focus on shared human, political and global concerns. By projecting VisitorsStudio into public spaces-community centres, cafes, bars, galleries-these events can connect communities of people in public spaces around the world. An example of this kind of project is DissensionConvention-A Transatlantic Multimedia Protest Jam19 which coincided with the Republican Convention in New York, in 2004. Over twenty international net artists and digital artists created a five day long broadcast of collaborative art-polemic with a focus on how Bush and the US Republicans negatively influence every locality around the world. The protest jam was projected at RNC NODE at Postmasters Gallery and in local NY bars and cafes, and attracted thousands of online visitors.
Furtherfield is now working with Furthernoise to develop a workshop programme called CoMix, in which young people from London and Bristol in the UK will collaborate with others in the Bronx, NY, USA, collaging and mixing audio-visual files and creating performances together live. A new database will be created especially for young people, the first new installation of the VisitorsStudio artware to be dedicated to particular groups of users.
We hope that we have been able to communicate some of the processes, contexts and practice in the Furtherfield Neighbourhood. DIWO means exploring the potential to share visions, resources and agency, through collaboration and negotiation, across physical and virtual networks-maintaining a critical consciousness and hopefully, somehow having a decent life at the same time... We are aware that we may have underplayed some of the difficulties that we continue to face in sustaining our activities. Another time. Instead, we wanted to share our understanding, drawn from our own experience, of the value of nurturing non-commercially-driven spaces for collaboratively authored and variegated visions that involve the use of technology. Because if we do not take control of the tools and the media, and at least make an effort to empower ourselves and the communities that we value, then others may come along and take that possibility from us.
6 HTTP [House of Technologically Termed Praxis] www.http.uk.net
7 These ideas include notions of Free and Open culture as defined by association with i) network-facilitated sharing and development processes of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) ii) open organisation and consensual decision making of anti globalisation protest movements iii) Political philosophy such as Hardt and Negris The Multitude iv) the Happenings and art events of 1970s Fluxus artists.
8 NODE.London Season of Media Arts in London www.nodel.org
9 See NODE.London States of Interdependence by Catlow and Garrett. Available from http://publication.nodel.org/States-of- Interdependence
10 Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 2002.
13 The FurtherStudio web facility utilised a technical solution (using server-sockets and Perl script) developed by Neil Jenkins for Skin/Strip Online, an earlier real-time online contributory project developed by Furtherfield and Completely Naked. See www.skinstrip.net
115 A text about VisitorsStudio by Patrick Lichty for the Game/Play exhibition http://blog.game-play.org.uk/?q=VisitorsStudio
18 Furthernoise.org is a sister-site to Furtherfield.org, run by musician Roger Mills, that provides an online platform for the creation, promotion, criticism and archiving of innovative cross genre music and sound art.
19 Organised by Furtherfield.org. For archives of the protest jam, see www.Furtherfield.org/dissensionconvention
Republished by kind permission of Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett, Furtherfield.org and d/Lux/MediaArts and Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW, Australia. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/
Ruth Catlow, Marc Garrett
First published: d/Lux/MediaArts and Campbelltown Arts Centre, NSW, Australia, 2007. Republished: a-n Collections April 2008.
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