It is important to explain my research methodologies from the outset because they are central to the structure that will follow. I will then go on to examine my own interests in the subject relating to my own practice, which has led me to investigate the structure of the Internet and how sharing occurs within this context. This will be followed by an analysis of current Internet and artistic practices and an exploration of how we consequently define 'the artist'. I will conclude with reference to Schinkel's use of Niklas Luhmann's ideas around the sociology of the art world, which I will contextualise in relation to the Internet.
I decided to make this text a sharing experiment in itself by posting the first draft on my research blog and inviting people to read it and provide feedback. This is not a new technique – in fact I discovered during this research that Charles Leadbeater used similar methods in early drafts of his book, We Think (2008). Some of my original text will appear here, along with reference to comments and replies that have been contributed. Since writing the first instalment many different directions of enquiry have been made evident to me. Some of these will continue to feed my practice and research but do not apply directly to this discourse.
I began researching the concept of sharing because my practice tends toward a sociological perspective. I am concerned with societal trends, mass culture and systems of communication. By collecting from mass media I aim to gather some representational sense of society or intersubjectivity, and I then create projects in reaction to this personal archive. I am also interested in working collaboratively and creating participatory situations as a form of consensual appropriation. I am a member of the Dublin based collectives scissorscutspaper and Pallasades and have contributed anonymously to various Internet and art platforms. I often use open-source software to make artworks. I have also appropriated images and videos from internet sources, collaging and re-editing. While I have a healthy attitude to sharing I do sometimes feel uneasy putting full, high quality artworks online. Creating anonymously also feels like a strangely selfless act for an artist as there is no way of recording your labour, or gaining recognition for it outside the Internet community. As I began to use the Internet to collaborate and appropriate more it became increasingly apparent that things I previously took for granted were actually quite blurred. Is my work digital, physical or both? Should I show my work on YouTube or in a gallery? Why are YouTube videos not all seen as Art despite their creative value? Who is an artist now that everyone has access to creative means? What does it mean to share and why do people do it? What does it mean to be anonymous online?
To take an example from an ongoing project I began last year: Using a free trial computer software, I co-ordinated and drew out cross-stitch patterns of commonly circulating internet jpegs and sold them as kits via my blog and email (Fig.1).
The first edition of five were given to friends and acquaintances in the mutual understanding that I could use the image of the finished cross-stitch when completed, while they would get to keep the physical embroidery (Fig.2).
The work has been outsourced – a large part of the labour of making is transferred to another person, yet I still have a claim to the image and have exhibited it under my name with the contributors acknowledged. I have been recording all of the progress on my blog, which is a project in itself as an online sketchbook. I have shared to an extent, but not entirely because it is still my project. Moreover I have not made the kits entirely open to download – the work remains in the 'real' world of objects. For me this raised many issues and forced me to investigate artists working in similar veins. As a contrast to this a video I made this year uses found youtube footage from the film Braveheart, which was edited and then re-uploaded to YouTube. Copyright issues aside, does this work belong in a gallery or on Youtube? Should I have my name on it (legally I probably should not), or remove all evidence of my involvement? In this case is it still an artwork or simply a piece of Internet culture?
These are not new questions, but they have been part of contemporary discourse because of current Internet practices. I will begin my attempt to answer them by discussing the relevance of the structure of the internet, using current artists and a variety of texts to illustrate my ideas. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the people that gave me great feedback in the last instalment. Hopefully it is evident that I have taken this on board.
The shared structure of 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 knowledge that the end product will be enhanced by a larger range of expertise and viewpoints. Generally things are given with little or nothing expected in return. There are many champions of the positive nature of this sharing ethos. One I have already mentioned is Charles Leadbeater, 'author' (along with 257 others) of We Think (2008) who posted early drafts of his manuscript online to gain feedback and include different opinions. Another is Clay Shirky who wrote Here Comes Everybody:The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008) in which he makes an argument for collaboration and crowd-sourcing. He also has a blog which he updates regularly and has done a number of talks and lectures which are available online.
Then, on the other hand, there are huge problems occurring because sharing is not encouraged by everyone. There are systems in place that cannot continue as they are when transferred to a shared culture. As Jonathan Zittrain posits in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (2009) we may also be in danger of allowing our fears of open systems and all the negative things online (from malware to malicious actions by other users) close down the good part of the generative internet, thus stopping innovation. Lawrence Lessig's book Remix (2008 - available online) deals with these in great detail, with many examples. He worries that there is a gap between commerce and art that has created a generation of young and technically creative people to be criminalised by copyright laws. There are other arguments that say that there is too much information online such as Andrew Keen, who in The Cult of the Amateur (2007) suggests that the openness of the Internet leads to a confusion in content between the truth or authority of professionals and the rest of the information distributed by amateurs. How might we distinguish between fact and gossip? These are just a few examples to illustrate the breadth of discussion on the topic.
It is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about anything online at this point because the Internet is always in a constant state of change. 'Not only is the demography of the Net changing, but its material infrastructure is also in continual flux.' Mark 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.
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.
Rather than a contract, what we have online is an obligation. 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 ('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). One of the foundations of the internet is trust. In We Think (2008, p.75) Leadbeater talks about the reasons why people contribute and share ideas online – particularly when they are giving away work and are not being paid.
In open-source software projects, a few are inspired by a hatred of proprietary software providers, especially Microsoft. A minority are driven by altruistic motives. Some see their involvement as a way to get a better job: by showing off their skills in the open-source community they can enhance their chances of being employed. For the majority the main motive is recognition: they want the acknowledgement of their peers for doing good work that they enjoy, that gives them a sense of achievement and in the process solves a problem for which other people are seeking a solution.
In effect there is very little is true altruism on the Internet. In a gift-sharing economy, there is always an obligation to reciprocate even just by recognition. I believe this idea of recognition is crucial when looking at art both on and offline. More specifically I believe it is important to see where the recognition comes from.
Lewis Hyde discusses sharing within gift economies, and places artists firmly within this realm. There is a circulation of making and receiving along with a social obligation of recognition within this system, however since Hyde wrote this book in 1983 he has noted (in the afterword) many changes regarding the commercialisation of non commercial areas of life. He mentions that art market and education systems have become more business and market orientated. Therefore there is a split between our current art system and the true open gift economies, but as he says “gift-institutions supporting the noncommercial portions of our lives will change as the times change.” and “If we want our institutions to have the longevity they deserve, then the commercial side of our culture needs to be met with an indigenous counterforce, not a foreign one.” (2007, p.293)
Hyde explains that the shared gift must also circulate and that when it stops moving (or is kept by someone) it ceases to function. In terms of the Internet participation is very important as there is no point in posting something to a blog or forum, or indeed painting a work of art without an audience. This is one criticism of Jose van Dijck (2009). He argues that while the Internet is often seen as this hugely democratic system, perhaps user agency is limited. Van Dijck shows that participation is very different from active contribution and thus participation is actually an ambiguous concept. It is possible that only a portion of the people are taking part, or even reading the content. I should note that from putting the first draft of this text online, sending emails and posting it on Facebook a lot of people seem to have read it, but only five contributed. I still think that this is a powerful tool, and that if people are interested or passionate enough about something they will contribute. Moreover, the option to do so is very important.
To illustrate some of these points I will refer to current artists. 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.3) 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.)
There are different levels of authorship, ownership, recognition and participation at play in this work. Although she did not contact the original designers to ask permission, Syjuco did recognise them by crediting them, which she would consider makes this more a collaboration between an anonymous user and the artist (Pallas Projects, 2009). She is granting them a share, but the process of changing it into a physical object and the situation she has created is her own, recognised within the art community offline. She is not, as far as I can see, looking back for recognition within the online sphere directly, although the project is on her website and could move that way. This work remains very much in the 'real' art-community world as a comment on the Internet community from which it originated. There are different systems at work here – one is a shared life online, the other is an art system offline, and even further beyond that, an art-market relying on exclusive recognition.
What then 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 in bands. One can assume that the process of sharing is fairly important to this multi-faceted practice. He also appropriates 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 a lot 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, the re-grouping 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, which people do participate in, and he sometimes posts the remixes on his site.
Arcangel's works inhabit an in-between area. He is respected and recognised online through his website, and his works remain online much of the time within a circular economy of gift exchange. However, he also seeks recognition from the established art system. He exhibits finished pieces in galleries. There is a distinction. Both Syjuco and Arcangel retain their own recognition and 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. If we are to look at Hyde's (2007, p.4) definition of a gift, this is where is ceases to be shared, because a gift must always be in motion.
Seth Price's essay Dispersion (2002-) 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 coincidence 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. Partly in response to this essay the New Museum in New York hosted an exhibition called Free (October 2010 – January 2011), curated by the director of rhizome.org, 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 diverse works 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. For example, Joel Holmberg's piece Legendary Account (Fig.4) 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 Yahoo! Answers queries 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? He 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?
How do we define who is an artist in this context?
One frequent topic of discussion I remember clearly, was that net.art had finally freed the artist from the tyranny of the museums and galleries. The artist was free! They now had direct online access to their audience with no middle-man! Victory!! The history of art would be forever changed! (Arcangel, 2009, p.7)
In the introduction to Digital Folklore Cory Archangel (2009, pp.7-8) talks about his early experiences of the Internet and art. It is interesting that despite the “utopian spirit” that meant that “everybody was invited to this party!” Arcangel still makes a distinction between art and non-art. He calls himself a “self identified” artist and says “while these artists were doing strange things with the internet, the online 'everybody else' was doing the same. And what is art but human expression?” The status of artist appears to be in a paradoxical state.
In an email response to my blog Alan Butler, a Dublin based artist dealing with similar issues, wrote “the 'democratization' of culture via the web has revealed that everyone can be an artist and that having a gallery and feature in Artforum does not mean your work is more appealing to the public or defines society any better...” begging the question: “is Christian Marclay doing much more with a gallery space than a 17 year old remixer from Ohio with a laptop and a 50,000 hits-a-day Youtube page?” and yet Arcangel still says “Despite an ever expanding online audience, the fine art audience has remained stubbornly centred around galleries and museums.”(2009, p.7) So it would seem even artists gaining recognition on online platforms are still not fully accepted offline until they show work within the established system.
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 in a different way. The Obama Hope (Fig.5) 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 or negative subversion of the original helped to build it as a cultural icon and increase it's cultural value.
The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (2006). It refers to the cultural equivalent of a gene – a cultural replicator passed from one person to the other as information, ideas and beliefs, modifying as it goes. Internet memes 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, pop culture, and, most notably, kittens.
Memes are not widely regarded as art, and I doubt that many of the creators view themselves as artists. However, is this not just a case of context and framing? “Is it not true that all art has always contained or is a meme?” asks Butler, and he then goes on to explain: “The oppressiveness of the gallery and the commercial art system has always rail-roaded particular works/artists into the limelight based on particular trends and discourses.” Perhaps then Butler has a point in stating: “This system is the meme we are truly proliferating.”
To conclude, I have discussed and illustrated how the Internet has intensified existing questions about artistic processes, the integrity of the artwork, the art system, and how it has further blurred the boundaries between art and life. I will now look at how this functions with reference to Willem Schinkel's text on the art system.
In The Autopoiesis of the Artworld after the End of Art Schinkel (2010) uses and adapts the views of Niklas Luhmann to explain the social system of art and the artworld. Here he discusses the way that Art exists within a system which constantly renews and maintains itself. He also comments on the current modes and programmes of art. Both Luhmann and Schinkel define a social system of art that consists of communications on art. Schinkel also claims that art criticism, communication about art, is also integral to the autopoiesis (self-reproduction) of the system of art. The closed system of art helps to create and protect its own identity and relative autonomy. This has for example, led to the self-referential tendencies in 20th Century art. This claim seems to agree with the observation from Dan Graham in Dispersion (Price, 2002-):
...if a work of art wasn’t written about and reproduced in a magazine it would have difficulty attaining the status of ‘art’. It seemed that in order to be defined as having value, that is as ‘art’, a work had only to be exhibited in a gallery and then to be written about and reproduced as a photograph in an art magazine.
In this way Schinkel (2010, p.278) suggests that the art system has managed to turn the vulnerable paradox of self-observation in the artworld into a method of survival by utilising and upholding the crises of “form, substance and legitimation”. The crises that happened around the time when autoreferentiality was ending, marked by some as the end of art, forced another shift which has taken on a programme of sociology that Schiller calls defamiliarization. The focus has been shifted to “the questioning of the sociality of which the observer is a part”(p.285). In relation to the points I have been discussing this could be seen as life, or the social reality of the Internet. The closed art system creates an inside or outside, depending on one's point of view. As Schinkel states, “Works of art are forms in the sense that they mark a space vis-à-vis an unmarked space outside the system of art.” (p.268) This is how the system exists but it is also how it creates a perspective whereby artists can use their 'outside' (of life) position to embed themselves within sociality and comment on it. “Defamiliarizing artists exploit their outsider position by engaging with the everyday world, and then defamiliarizing it” meaning that “Art thus makes 'world' visible from within the world...”(p.270)
Let us think back to Holmberg's Legendary Account to illustrate this defamiliarization. Holmberg situates himself in the social reality of the Net, defamiliarizing it through humour and returning it to a point where it may be observed. There must be a shift in the environment to an other - to an outside of life - to within the art system. In this respect when artists share they cannot do so in the same way as the 'everybody else' that Arcangel talks about. Contemporary artists who choose to engage with the precarious democratic nature of current technology walk a fine line between immersion and critical distance. The distinction between art and life (on the Net) might be the artists willingness to take responsibility. The artworld's role might be to provide a goal, a point of completion, a full stop.
Chambers, F., 2010. Jpeg cross stitch project (Installation shot, RHA Gallery Dublin) [digital image]
Chambers, F., 2010. Jpeg cross stitch project – in collaboration with Alexandra Caccamo [digital image]
Syjuco, S., 2009. Unsolicited Fabrications: Shareware Sculptures (installation shot at Pallas Contemporary Projects, Dublin) [digital image] Available at: http://www.stephaniesyjuco.com/p_unsolicited_fabs.html [Accessed 8th April 2011]
Holmberg, J. 2010. Legendary Account – performance documentation arranged by date [screenshot] Available at: http://joelholmberg.com/legendary-account [Accessed 4th April 2011]
Google image search, 2011. “obama hope” (Image search) [screenshot]
Available at: http://www.google.co.uk/images?um=1&hl=en&biw=1431&bih=803&tbm=isch&aq=f&aqi=g10&oq=&q=obama%20hope
[Accessed 13th April 2011 ]