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Can Art do Technology and Social Change?

01/11/2010
Ruth Catlow

The Zero Dollar Laptop Workshop programme has been developed and delivered through partnership between Furtherfield and Access Space and aims to change attitudes to technology. It does this by recycling hardware, deploying Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), sharing skills and working together to create rich media content.

This project has provided a useful basis for thinking about how art might be able to create change through learning and education that relates to technology.

This question becomes especially relevant in the context of current, global economic and ecological collapse.

Access Space, Furtherfield and Zero Dollar Laptop workshops participants
Left to Right: Participants take part in a workshop at Access Space, Sheffield; An exhibition at Furtherfields HTTP Gallery, London; and Zero Dollar Laptop Workshop participants at St MungosCharity for Homeless People, London.

So first let’s start by thinking about what art and technology and social change have got to do with each other?

Do we need art?

It does depend on how you view art. At Furtherfield we don’t accept the mainstream view of art as a marginal interest. The expanded, connected and networked art forms that we choose to work with cannot be separated from life so easily.

They engage the people who encounter them with different kinds of aesthetic, ethical and philosophical experiences – often in places not easily recognisable as art-spaces, often in technologically enabled spaces because this is where life takes place for so many people.

For all kinds of reasons (to do with our education and class structures), in the UK the dominant view is that ‘great’ art is separate and distant from the rest of life and therefore of marginal relevance to society and most people, or to quote Heath Bunting ‘Most art means nothing to most people’.

It is regarded as: elite/intellectual, historical/heritage, commodity, the work of charlatans etc.

Sometimes art is regarded perhaps more positively, as a diversion or a hobby; more positive from our point of view because people make art their own, share it and incorporate it into their own lives on their own terms.

A recent Save the Arts campaign poster by Jeremy Deller, Scott King and William Morris protests against further anticipated marginalisation of the arts in the UK, 2010
A recent Save the Arts campaign poster by Jeremy Deller, Scott King and William Morris protests against further anticipated marginalisation of the arts in the UK, 2010

Don’t just Do It Yourself, Do It With Others (DIWO!)
Furtherfield got started in the context of the discourse-smothering London Brit Art gallery scene in the mid-90s, when access to established galleries was carefully guarded. Meanwhile the Internet, an open public space of unlimited dimensions, was relatively sparsely populated at two extremes by corporate marketing departments and pet owners. The Internet also offered a free playground for early net artists.

Since then Furtherfield has co-constructed platforms and processes (online and in physical spaces) with a network of other artists, hackers, gamers, programmers, thinkers and curators to support collaboration and engagement between artists, participants and audiences worldwide.

Visitors Studio work online
VisitorsStudio (since 2004) is Furtherfields’ real-time, open, online audio-visual multi-user mixing platform for learning, play and performance. [1]

Informed by ‘open and free’ philosophies and practices of peer-to-peer cultural development and moving on from the DIY (Do It Yourself) approach of the 1990s artist-hackers that fed on the Modernist understanding of the individual artistic genius, we have moved towards more collaborative processes that we call DIWO (Do It With Others) and that explore different ways of creating shared visions.

For us taking a grassroots approach in art means that we pay attention to the everyday lives of the people we work with, to create and shape the platforms that we need. This is not a hippy dream. Rather, it provides a way to develop robust and healthy ways for diverse people and interests to interact and co-exist for mutual benefit.

Flyer for DIWO event by Furtherfield
Graphic for the Do It With Others (DIWO) E-Mail Art open exhibition and open curation at HTTP Gallery

The Zero Dollar Laptop

Since 2008 Furtherfield and Access Space have worked in partnership on the Zero Dollar Laptop project, to support cooperation in creativity, technical learning and environmental awareness. One side-effect of techno-consumerism is that we dump tonnes of UK electronic waste in the developing world each year.[2]

This project, inspired by James Wallbank’s Zero Dollar Laptop Manifesto, aims to change the way we think about technology by a shift of emphasis: from high-status consumer technologies to customised tools-for-the-job and smart, connected users.

Our organisations have worked together with participants to develop resources and pilot workshops that aim to eventually bring back into use (or save from toxic waste dumps) millions of redundant laptops currently gathering dust on shelves in homes and offices across Britain; putting them in the hands of the people who are best placed to make use of them, to benefit from a collaborative approach to learning and to connect with new knowledge networks in the process.

This project has its basis in grassroots, critical practice at the intersection of art, technology and social change.

Zero Dollar Laptop logo
View participants’ blogs, workshop plans and resources on the Zero Dollar Laptop Workshops blog.

Changing Attitudes to Technology

The first pilot of Zero Dollar Laptop workshops kicked off at the Bridge Resource Centre in West London in January 2010 with clients of St Mungo’s Charity for Homeless People. [3]

In our experience, a much more diverse group of people are able to enjoy and benefit from technical projects when the projects acknowledge and incorporate ethical, philosophical and aesthetic questions as part of the mix.

People who might not initially identify themselves as ‘techy’ stay engaged with complex technical learning processes by focusing on the learning that is meaningful for them and sharing it with others.

In the case of Zero Dollar Laptop workshops this can range from creating a profile image for Facebook to writing a blog post to lobby against government cuts in public services, or creating a desktop background or a new startup-sound to customise their own laptop.

The meaning and function of work is often conveyed by the construction of a context (a place, a set of tools, an aesthetic, a set of relationships) or a hack or remix of an existing context.

With participatory or collaborative artworks the context in which people engage with the work is a part of the work.

So the role of the artist today has to be to push back at existing infrastructures, claim agency and share the tools with others to reclaim, shape and hack these contexts in which culture is created.

We believe that through creative and critical engagement with practices in art and technology people become active co-creators of their cultures and societies.

And as James Wallbank notes, ‘the best artworks are those that create artists’.

Originally commissioned by Axisweb.

1 Visitorsstudio http://visitorsstudio.org, a Furtherfield project developed under the creative direction of Neil Jenkins, Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow. Interface and backend programmed by Neil Jenkins.

2 Sustainable ICT http://93.97.180.157/documents/sustainable_ict.pdf - slides by Paula Graham of the excellent Fossbox http://www.fossbox.org.uk

3 These workshops were devised and led by Jake Harries from Access Space with Olga Panades from Furtherfield. You can download the report of this pilot, which includes participants' accounts of the experience from the blog http://www.furtherfield.org/zerodollarlaptop/pdfs/zdlt_report.pdf

Artist, theorist, curator and recovering web-utopian, Ruth is co-director, of Furtherfield, co-founded in 1996 with Marc Garrett, for labs, debates and exhibitions around critical questions in arts, technology and society.

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1 Visitorsstudio http://visitorsstudio.org, a Furtherfield project developed under the creative direction of Neil Jenkins, Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow. Interface and backend programmed by Neil Jenkins.

2 Sustainable ICT http://93.97.180.157/documents/sustainable_ict.pdf - slides by Paula Graham of the excellent Fossbox http://www.fossbox.org.uk

3 These workshops were devised and led by Jake Harries from Access Space with Olga Panades from Furtherfield. You can download the report of this pilot, which includes participants' accounts of the experience from the blog http://www.furtherfield.org/zerodollarlaptop/pdfs/zdlt_report.pdf

Artist, theorist, curator and recovering web-utopian, Ruth is co-director, of Furtherfield, co-founded in 1996 with Marc Garrett, for labs, debates and exhibitions around critical questions in arts, technology and society. Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook