Some thoughts on returning from ISEA 2011 in Istanbul.
It is ever more urgent for us to develop functional infrastructures for imaginative interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration.
Our Sunday morning panel, Re-rooting Digital Culture- Media Art Ecologies, with Helen Varley Jamieson, Paula Crutchlow, Michel Bauwens and Sophie Jerram, was shaped by the emerging debate surrounding these issues . This blog post attempts to relate what happened in our panel in connection with these and other linked ideas and occurrences.
As Melinda Rackham wrote in a largely positive email post about ISEA 2011, that delegates and attendees, struggled to 'route around entrenched outmoded corporate modes of being to find a useful way to really communicate ideas and engage with each other'.
Existing, interdependent financial and academic protocols reinforce values, processes and systems associated with ongoing environmental and financial collapse.
At the same time they restrict the potential for interdisciplinary interchange. This is not to negate the gargantuan effort of the organisers. However we need to think about how to maintain a critical stance while supporting work across disciplines in the communities we value.
ISEA attendees (and the extended network of people who cannot attend but do pay attention) DO constitute a valuable 'community' of practice that is worth, developing and caring for. We could also benefit from seeing ourselves as such. Julian Oliver's contribution to the debate provides an eloquent critique and re-visioning of ISEA. I have included it in full at the bottom of this blog because I think its useful.
Setting the scene- the panel:
Furtherfield has been developing its Media Art Ecologies programme since 2009.
These diagrams provide a concise graphical argument for thinking, feeling and acting clearly in a coordinated way in this historical moment.
Why is critical thinking about technology so important at this moment?
The diagrams show the exponential rise in global carbon emissions since 1850s, starting with the UK as it deploys the machines and systems of industrialisation worldwide. The left hand image shows UK carbon emissions dropping (as a percentage of global emissions). The right hand image shows them growing sharply.
The logic and infrastructures of capitalism are now collapsing in tandem with the environment. At the same time networked technologies and behaviours are proliferating. Social and economic transactions take place at increased speed but not necessarily in support of the evolution of a healthy civilisation.
Examples from our programme of exhibitions, workshops and interventions include: Feral Trade Cafe- an exhibition that was also a cafe by Kate Rich; Zero Dollar Laptop- workshops to deploy reusable laptops to people with the time to develop skills to benefit from and contribute to FOSS cultures; We Won't Fly For Art - a pyramid scheme pledge to intervene into global art market values and reduce carbon emissions.
This 3 minute video Overland was made (with unglamorous tools) during my last trip to Istanbul in 2009 for the ETC which I made overland (instead of by air) while bound by the pledge. The video is a meditation on the density of human settlement across Europe and the material infrastructures from an earlier industrial age, that are now in place to provide shelter, communication and energy, and that are not going to change easily now, or in the next 150 years. It plays well alongside this quotation below, in which John Hopkins which makes the argument for a critical interdisciplinary approach across artistic and technical cultures.
..'We are so close to most technologies in our lives (especially the ones we grew up in relation with) that to take a principled distance on the familiar is difficult to impossible...
My question still is, how can you make a disconnect between using a contemporary telecommunications device of any sort, and the globe-spanning, energy-consuming, earth-raping technical infrastructure that is necessary to bring that device into your hands? It is this connection which should be informing any 'socially conscious' 'digital art' '.
Re-rooting - the panel
Our panel brought together political philosopher writer and activist, Michel Bauwens of the Foundation for Peer 2 Peer Alternatives with cyberformance artists Helen Varley Jamieson and Paula Crutchlow (participating remotely). Also seated around the table were another 25 artists, academics and environmental activists.
Yi-Fu Tuan provides a useful analysis of why this kind of interdisciplinary working can be troublesome.
'The language of ordinary discourse and a portion of poetry is rich in symbols and metaphors. Science by contrast strives to remove the possibility of multiple readings. A traditional world has the ambiguity and richness of ordinary and ritual speech. The modern world on the other hand aspires to be transparent and literal'.
This insight resonates with interchange on other panels between people from indigenous and post-industrial cultures, highlighted in the SCANZ Eco-Sapiens round-table with Maori elder, Te Huirangi Waikerepuru and James Leach's presentation about the people on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea .
Finding ways to facilitate inter-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange should help us to overcome dangerous ruts in behaviour and models of mind in order to avoid dead-ends and dead-drops in the development of our civilisation. Attention to networked and ecological approaches enable otherwise siloed worlds of knowledge and research to intersect and start to work together. To this end Sophie Jerram, New Zealand-based artist, curator and environmental activist, generously agreed to act as official provocateur to ensure legible exchange across disciplines.
Helen Varley Jamieson (in the room, Istanbul) and Paula Crutchlow (in Exeter, UK) wrangled a networked presentation and micro-performance of Make-Shift – A Networked Performance of Connections and Consequences, compelling in its warmth, from the uneven and uncooperative Internet connection. Make-Shift takes as its theme and materials, our patterns of domestic consumption and the concomitant impact on the environment. The cyberformers work with a collection of network tools in UpStage along with other social media tools. In their regular performances, audiences arrive in two homes (often located in different countries if not continents), bringing with them all the plastic packaging that they would have otherwise discarded in the previous 24 hours and these provide the raw materials for a key part of the performance.
For this panel, Helen and Paula performed, demonstrated, theorised and discussed Make-Shift while puppeteering and giving voice to digital avatars and handling backdrop changes upon the online stage, in real time. The other people in the room shouted out to Paula and laughed out loud at Dave (a regular avatar- a sympathetic representation of 'everyman' in the online stage) and his plaintive reflections on his own wastefulness - as he contemplated mountains of old mobile phones, scussi cables and broken monitors.
Their physical-to-virtual meaning-making and the connection with domestic space, combined with expected (if uncontrollable) technical glitches to ask questions about how to increase 'intimacy across an impersonal medium' giving rise to later discussions about: co-produced artistic contexts and infrastructures as a way to extend ways of thinking, feeling and acting in the world together and; the uselessness of shame and guilt as a response to environmental responsibility.
Michel Bauwens gave an informal introduction to the ways in which commons-based peer production suggest alternative routes to a sustainable civilization. He introduced the Nutrient Dense Project as an example of a typically smart combination of localism and globalism whereby in the absence of formal academic scientific research into this subject (one can speculate why) farmers share their experience and knowledge of soil enrichment to produce more nutritional food.
Currently the market is central to our culture and dominates the state. The social contract is breaking (most clearly articulated by the Indignados protests in Spain) as it becomes more expensive to study, there are very few available jobs for young people, and those that find jobs are paid less to work harder for longer and for a reduced (or no) pension.
Michel observes that while we need to find ways to cooperate, collectivist strategies are often shown to evolve into tyrannies and proposes that as our networked communications and mass media expand we can instead form communities on a more manageable (tribal) scale through self-aggregation.
By transposing what has been learned by sharing the production and use of immaterial goods such as software, to strategies for developing sharing in other productive modes. He sites open-source car design and distributed manufacture (through the use of 3D printing) that does away with patenting and built in obsolescence- constituent principles of our unsustainable consumer-based society. After all, he says 'there is a light bulb made in 1903 that is still burning!'
In this way the community sits at the centre of innovation rather than the corporation- putting peer production at the core of civil society in mutual alignment- open and transparent.
He recognises that peer to peer production is currently dependent on capitalism (companies such as IBM invest huge percentages of their budgets into the development of FOSS) but observes that history suggests a process whereby it might be possible to break free from this embrace. He suggests that by breaking the Free software orthodoxy it would be possible to build a system of guild communities to support the expansion of mission oriented, benefit-driven co-ops whose innovations are only shared freely with people contributing to the commons. In the transition to intrinsically motivated, mass production of the commons, for-profit companies would pay to benefit from these innovations.
Sophie drew attention to the challenges and risks involved, and the tensions of maintaining a grounded personal and domestic life while contributing to the commons; also the need to develop 'largesse' or surplus for those pioneers of the new strategies while the system adapts. This prompted discussions about other examples of cross-cultural (and even intergenerational) commons-based peer production and the economic models and tactics being developed by artists and activists – who often share a precarious existence- in order to continue their work.
I observed that even after a warm and in depth discussion, Michel appeared rather bemused by the regular invitations he receives by artists and artistically led organisations to meet and speak with them.
So this blog post will finish with an open letter to Michel on this subject : )
I think you are still puzzled about why artists keep inviting you to spend time and speak with them. You say 'I am not an artist' but perhaps you mean 'you (artist) are not a philosopher, or political activist.'
I may be wrong. But I can understand why you might say this.
The word 'art' can conjure a vision of objects in a gallery, showroom or museum that reinforces the values and machinations of the victors of history; ) – a leisure object for elite entertainment, distraction, and or decoration. A narcissistic expression of an isolated self-regarding individual. Not that I am entirely knocking these things- they can contribute a much needed sensual, decorative space to life; ) But there are many art worlds that diverge from this dominant, market driven one of commoditised objects- and I would guess that these are the ones that invite you to spend time with them.
Our since-net communities may intersect with this art world but also create their own art contexts. We may be playful, critical, political and may work as possible co-creators with all the materials (stuff, ideas, processes, entities (beings and institutions) and environments) of life.
This includes you : )
Because the P2P foundation is creating open knowledge we can connect with your work.
Those of us who share your analysis of the contemporary political moment may also perceive a possible role for themselves in the generation of mutual commons-based interfaces for engagement that go beyond solely textual formats to arrays of performance, narrative (fact and fiction), image, sound, database, algorithm, music, theory, sculpture - to explicitly re-conceive inalienable social relations.
Julian Oliver on ISEA 2011
With high entrance fees and neither flight or accommodation covered,'independents' such as myself will always be discouraged from attending. I know many people that would've liked to contribute and/or visit ISEA this year but without a university or media-lab covering costs they simply cannot justify the personal expense.
Independent makers and thinkers are not merely those /without/ institutional affiliation; rather they're often practitioners that consciously operate outside an institutional frame. Such people are great in number, authoring some of the most rigorous electronic art and theory today, celebrated in books, festivals and museums worldwide. They may have day-jobs or merely live on a very small budget, relying entirely on artist fees, talks and the occasional commission.
If ISEA's economic model cannot assist and/or make it easier for independent contributors (let alone lower costs for attendees themselves), it is in no place to claim canonical representation of the state of electronic art today. Leave that to other festivals. Rather, ISEA would better be cast as an institutional meet-and-greet or forum for pursuing professional agendas.
A little imagination wouldn't go astray here: with such stunning weather wouldn't it have been great to have the festival under large canopies or tents down on the water side? Perhaps it could've been smaller and more tightly curated such that it could fit in a smaller venue.
Parallel talks and panels are always frustrating, especially given the complex social relations and critical interests endemic to conferences and festivals. It is sad for a conference schedule to propagate as stress within what is otherwise a warm and stimulating gathering of minds. A festival that makes it easy for people to meet, demonstrate and discuss is, in general, a cherished festival.
8 As part of the Creativity as Social Ontology panel convened by Simon Biggs. James talked about the role of the split-gong drum in the community - worth a whole blog post in itself. http://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/panel/creativity-social-ontology
10 Sophie Jerram http://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/.jerram
11 Informed by Sy Taffel's critical but fair observations of our first gathering in May http://mediaecologies.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/re-rooting-digital-cultur...
13 purpose-built, multiuser, real-time collaborative software - http://upstage.org.nz/blog/