Wednesday, April 27, 2011

First Draft: Collaboration and the Internet: Can artists really share?

My practice is concerned with societal trends, mass culture and systems of communication.
I begin by collecting from mass media, through which I aim to gather some represented sense of society and I then create projects in reaction to the this personal archive. I often appropriate and re-contextualise this content in a humorous way.

In this way I try to contextualise myself, both as an individual and a member of society, in a situation where there is simply too much information to make meaning. As a result a lot of my work does not succeed in clarifying or explaining our society, instead it draws attention to the absurdity of the things we do, and the images or products that we produce. Caterina Fake (2010) puts it well when talking about the artists in Free, an exhibition I will refer to later in this text:

'...this sense of how the “data”—the “facts,” if you will—tells us something, but fails to capture the human drama, the story, the suffering, the lived lives behind the information gathered and displayed.'

I am also interested in working collaboratively and creating participatory situations as a kind of consensual appropriation. For this reason, I have recently been primarily involved in researching the current modes of appropriation art and the act of sharing in reference to the Internet. The open nature of the Net exposes many questions for current art practices. Shareware, Open Source, and Creative Commons not only create new material for appropriation, but new processes for creative collaboration. User generated platforms create ideal opportunities to participate and the new model of distribution, which has shifted from a top-down model to a many-to-many one, actively invites borrowing of material and ideas. This is sometimes in the hopeful knowledge that the end product will be enhanced by different expertise or viewpoints. Generally though, things are given with little or nothing expected in return.

The Internet in its current form is actually a result of its own open composition: the work of many different individuals sharing ideas and code to generate better systems in the better interest of all involved. Mark Poster (2001, p.58) talks about the Net as being a 'collaborative creation' which disrupts former rules and regulations.

'Instead of a gift economy or a public good, I prefer to think about the internet as an economy of sharing. Uploading a file or posting a message on a Usenet group in answer to a query is best understood as a contribution to all users for no direct reward. The act of sharing is little recognised in economics characterised by commodity exchange but is unique to the Internet. Nor is sharing on the Internet an act of barter because there is no exchange of specific goods of agreed upon equality. Sharing on the Internet returns humanity to a primordial act that persists, outside the Internet, probably only among children, those who are presumed to to be incapable of contracts.'

What does this mean for art practices? It is difficult to say at this point because the internet is always in a constant state of change. 'Not only is the demography of the Net changing, but it's material infrastructure is also in continual flux.' Poster (2001, p.19) goes on to warn, 'Because of these and other ongoing transformations, students of new media must be modest in their claims and hypothetical in their voices.' The amount of information on the Net and the speed in which communication takes place makes any kind of critical distance very difficult.

In keeping with my visual art practice I do not claim to have definitive answers, but I can point out some things to consider. I will begin by looking at contemporary artists that use the Internet in their work. These practices span a large subject-base from the Internet itself and its inherent structure, to appropriating online society as a way of evaluating real life human experience.
Stephanie Syjuco is a San Francisco based visual artist who, according to her website, 'uses the tactics of bootlegging, reappropriation, and fictional fabrications to address issues of cultural biography, labour, and economic globalization.' (Syjuco, 2009). In 2009 Syjuco exhibited Unsolicited Fabrications: Shareware Sculptures in Pallas Contemporary Projects in Dublin. (Fig.1) She hand crafted models of existing designs from the shareware application Google SketchUp and presented them on plinths. Beside them she displayed the username of the 'original artist' and a short description by them, often badly spelt and in the typical colloquial language of the internet: 'Something I made while I was bored' or 'best sculpture ever!' A projection of the original sketches was also shown in the gallery space. (She recently did a similar show in Chicago called Particulate Matter: Things, Thingys, Thingies.)

Fig. 1

There are different levels of authorship and ownership at play in this work. Although she did not contact the original designers to ask permission, Syjuco did credit them, which she sees as a collaboration between an anonymous user and the artist (Pallas Projects, 2009). She is granting them a share of the ownership, but the process of changing it into a physical object and the situation she has created is her own. It is clear that the artist has made a transformation from virtual into 'real-life' space, and has moreover exhibited the resulting sculptures in a recognised gallery location. What of other works where the transformation is not so clear?

Cory Arcangel's work references digital culture. He is probably best known for his reprogramming or 'hacking' of outmoded technologies such as Nintendo consoles. Arcangel is a founding member of the BEIGE collective, has collaborated with Paper Rad collective and has performed with musicians in bands. One can assume that the process of sharing is fairly important to this multi-faceted practice. He has also appropriated content from the internet. For example he searches for key phrases such as 'working on my novel' on Twitter or blogs that say 'Sorry I haven't posted' to trace a common thread through internet communication, archive it, and re-blog it. This is a simple shift of context, a type of curation, where repetition of found information refers to the excess of people adding information to the pile. This small act says so much about the nature of today's blogging culture and the closing gap between amateur and professional (in this case authors). Even though the original posts are left exactly as they were, it has become Arcangel's piece - on his website for all to see. Interestingly, Arcangel also re-distributes some (though not all) of his work on his website including instructions and source code. He invites modifications and he sometimes posts the remixes on his site.

Both Syjuco and Arcangel retain their own authorship. They may not be against people taking their work to a further juncture, but they make sure their part in the process is seen as theirs. However, all creative processes on the web are two-way, and everything that may be seen as a positive will have it's negative counterpart. BEIGE founder Paul B. Davis' experience shows how the appropriation of open processes can work both ways.

'I woke up one morning in March to a flood of emails telling me to look at some video on YouTube. Seconds later saw I Kanye West strutting around in a field of digital glitches that looked exactly like my work. It fucked my show up...the very language I was using to critique pop content from the outside was now itself a mainstream cultural reference.' (Seventeen Gallery, 2009)

Artists must keep on their toes if they choose to work directly with such a fast paced medium.
'Anything on the internet is a fragment, provisional, pointing elsewhere. Nothing is finished. What a time you chose to be born!' (Price, 2002-)

Seth Price's essay Dispersion has become a central reference point in researching the creative discourse of the Internet - so many exhibitions and artists refer back to this text. It is of course no co-incidence that this essay is open-ended, has appeared in many forms and is distributed freely on the Net. This is precisely in keeping with the subject he is discussing.

In part response to this essay the New Museum, New York, hosted an exhibition called Free (October 2010 – January 2011), curated by the director of, Lauren Cornell. Price is one of the participating artists, displaying one of many versions of Dispersion. The exhibition catalogue and all accompanying essays are available in full online. The 23 artists presented make all kinds of work about the Internet. One unmistakeable aspect they have in common is the fact that they are all still reliant on presenting work in a gallery. Even if it is only printed documentation of an interaction that took place on the Net. Joel Holmberg's piece Legendary Account (Fig.2) asks users of the Yahoo! Answers community to answer questions such as 'How does it feel to be in love?' He refers to the presentation of the work on his website as 'performance documentation' (Holmberg, 2010), but for Free he exhibited printed versions of the screenshots. Can this be seen as a symptom of the Net's subversion of the gallery space? Is the piece the conversation, the documentation on a website, or the reproduction of the documentation in a gallery? Furthermore, nothing inherent in these questions indicates their status as art and as Price (2002-) rightly mentions, 'Immersing art in life runs the risk of seeing the status of art - and with it, the status of artist – disperse entirely.' Price talks about the art system which is used to contextualise the work through institutions and 'peer review'. Is it the constructed framework of an art system that validates the art and is Net art in danger of crossing the boundary between art and life? Price also asserts that 'recent attempts to evade the institutional system' have been futile. This is especially true on the Net. 'As the old New Yorker cartoon says, “on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog.” Here, we might instead propose that on the Internet, nobody knows you're an artist.' (Halter, 2010) Is it therefore the presentation of the performance after the fact that appoints them as artworks or is it as Halter suggests, that Holmberg's conventional website presents him as an artist and confirms the work as art?

Fig. 2

In Dispersion, Price (2002-) discusses the artists' position in the context of digital reproduction, where works are infinitely copyable, suggesting the model of distribution evident in systems such as the Internet is problematic alongside the current art system.

'Suppose an artist were to release the work directly into a system that depends on reproduction and distribution for its sustenance, a model that encourages contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur. The art system usually corrals errant works, but how could it recoup thousands of freely circulating paperbacks?' (Price 2002-)

The concept of scarcity has been seen to increase the perceptive traditional value of an artwork. However, value can be perceived in many different ways. In contrast, multiplicity on the Internet can increase the value of an image. The Obama Hope (Fig.3) poster (originally designed by Shepard Fairey), for example, became more effective due to its viral reproduction. The Net chose to share, remix, re-purpose, and parody it. Even coarse subversion of the original helped to build it as an icon and as it became iconic it's cultural value increased. Internet memes (concepts that spread via the Internet) such as this could be seen as true examples of democratic and anonymous collaborative activity in that people naturally appropriate them without expecting artistic credit for them. They can become a large work in progress, sometimes spreading as they are, sometimes evolving as they travel. Of course, memes do not need to start from an art source. They regularly make use of celebrity and pop culture, most notably kittens. Memes are not strictly regarded as art, and I doubt that all of the creators view themselves as artists. However, is this not just a case of context and framing?

Fig. 3

The current open and largely anonymous nature of the Net allows for interactions that have provoked a moral and legal debate on the nature of appropriation. Stealing, plagiarism, remixing, repurposing etc. are all overlapping terms and mean different things depending on one's perspective.
Consequently, Internet etiquette (or netiquette) has evolved within each platform or community of users. It is encouraged within the blogging community to link to original posters and this helps maintain good relations (Wikipedia, 2011). We are now really talking about human nature and the fact that the Internet is currently built on trust.

The Internet has intensified existing questions about artistic processes, the integrity of the artwork, the art system, and it has further blurred the boundaries between art and life. The audience can create, collaborate and even curate using hyperlinks in a way that was previously impossible. Sharing is cheaper, easier and quicker than ever. As artists using this medium we need to continue to be aware of this and constantly evaluate how best to engage with it.

Fig. 1
Syjuco, S., 2009. Unsolicited Fabrications: Shareware Sculptures (installation shot at Pallas Contemporary Projects, Dublin) [digital image] Available at: [Accessed 8th April 2011]

Fig. 2
Holmberg, J. 2010. Legendary Accountperformance documentation arranged by date [screenshot] Available at: [Accessed 4th April 2011]

Fig. 3
Google image search, 2011. “obama hope” (Image search) [screenshot]
[Accessed 13th April 2011 ]

Monday, April 4, 2011