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Three p2p-inspired collaborative art projects by Furtherfield.org

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd March 2013


* Article: DIWO: Do It With Others – No Ecology without Social Ecology. By Marc Garrett, Ruth Catlow – Furtherfield, 26/01/2013

The full article also refers to p2p-theoretical considerations before describing three concrete collaborative art projects with a specific p2p-inspiration:

(source: Remediating the Social 2012. Editor: Simon Biggs University of Edinburgh. Pages 69-74)

* Project 1: The DIWO Email Art and Curation Project as an emancipatory collaborative art project

By Marc Garrett, Ruth Catlow:

“The term “DIWO (Do It With Others)” was first defined in 2006 on Furtherfield’s collaborative project Rosalind – Upstart New Media Art Lexicon (since 2004) [12]. It extended the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos of early (self-proclaimed) ‘net art heroes’, who taught themselves to navigate the web and develop tactics that intervened in its developing cultures.

The word “art” can conjure up a vision of objects in an art gallery, showroom or museum, that can be perceived as reinforcing the values and machinations of the victors of history as leisure objects for elite entertainment, distraction and/or decoration – or the narcissistic expression of an isolated self-regarding individual. DIWO was proposed as a contemporary way of collaborating and exploiting the advantages of living in the Internet age that connected with the many art worlds that diverge from the market of commoditised objects – a network enabled art practice, drawing on everyday experience of many connected, open and distributed creative beings.

DIWO formed as an Email Art project with an open-call to the email list Netbehaviour, on the 1st of February 2007. In an art world largely dominated by elite, closed networks and gatekeeping curators and gallerists, Mail Art has long been used by artists to bypass curatorial restrictions for an imaginative exchange on their own terms.

Peers connect, communicate and collaborate, creating controversies, structures and a shared grass roots culture, through both digital online networks and physical environments. Strongly influenced by Mail Art projects of the 60s, 70s and 80s demonstrated by Fluxus artists’ with a common disregard for the distinctions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and a disdain for what they saw as the elitist gate-keeping of the ‘high’ art world…’ [13]

The co-curated exhibition of every contribution opened at the beginning of March at HTTP Gallery [14] and every post to the list, until 1st April, was considered an artwork – or part of a larger, collective artwork – for the DIWO project. Participants worked ‘across time zones and geographic and cultural distances with digital images, audio, text, code and software. They worked to create streams of art-data, art-surveillance, instructions and proposals in relay, producing multiple threads and mash-ups. (Catlow and Garrett, 2008)

‘The purpose of mail art, an activity shared by many artists throughout the world, is to establish an aesthetical communication between artists and common people in every corner of the globe, to divulge their work outside the structures of the art market and outside the traditional venues and institutions: a free communication in which words and signs, texts and colours act like instruments for a direct and immediate interaction.’ (Parmesani 1977)

So it made sense that the first DIWO project should be a mail art project that utilised email, enabled by the Internet; a public space with which anyone with access to a computer and a telephone line could use to publish. Because an email could be distributed (with attachments or links) to the inboxes of anyone subscribed to the Netbehaviour email list, subscribers’ inboxes became a distributed site of exhibition and collaborative art activity: such as correspondence, instruction, code poetry, software experiments, remote choreography, remixing and tool sharing.

This and later DIWO projects used both email and snail-mail and (in line with the Mail Art tradition) undertook the challenge of exhibiting every contribution in a gallery setting.

The DIWO Email art project was liberally interspersed with off-topic discussions, tangents and conversational splurges, so one challenge for the co-curators was to reveal the currents of meaning and the emerging themes within the torrents of different kinds of data, processes and behaviour. Another challenge was to find a way to convey the insider’s – that is the sender’s and the recipient’s – experience of the work. These works were made with a collective recipient in mind; subscribers to the Netbehaviour mailing list. This is a diverse group of people; artists, musicians, poets, thinkers and programmers (ranging from new-comers to old-hands) with varying familiarity with and interest in different aspects of netiquette and the rules of exchange and collaboration. This is reflected in the range of approaches, interactions and content produced.

In a number of important ways the email inbox guarantees a particular kind of freedom for the DIWO art context, as distinct from the exchange facilitated by the ubiquitous sociability, ‘sharing’ and ‘friendship’ offered by contemporary social media. Facebook, Myspace, Google+, etc, provide interfaces that are designed to elicit commercially valuable meta-data from their users. They are centrally controlled, designed to attract and gather the attention of its users in one place in order to monitor, process and interpret social behaviour and feed it to advertisers. As demonstrated during the disturbances of the Summer of 2011, these social media are an extension of the Panoptican and can also become tools of state surveillance and punishment as Terry Balson discovered on being detained for 2 years after being found guilty of setting up a Facebook page in order to encourage people to riot. (BBC News, 2012)

The DIWO Email Art and co-curation project is fully described and documented elsewhere [15] but it is outlined here as it gives an example of how our networked communities may intersect with everyday experience and with mainstream art worlds while also creating 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 DIWO approach provides the fundamental ethos for the Furtherfield Media Art Ecologies programme.

* Projet 2: Media Art Ecologies

“Furtherfield’s Media Art Ecologies programme (since 2009) brings together artists and activists, thinkers and doers from a wider community, whose practices address the interrelation of technological and natural processes: beings and things, individuals and multitudes, matter and patterns. These people take an ecological approach that challenges growth economics and techno-consumerism and attends to the nature of co-evolving, interdependent entities and conditions. They activate networks (digital, social, physical) to work with ecological themes and free and open processes.

The programme has included exhibitions such as Feral Trade Café by Kate Rich and If Not You Not Me by Annie Abrahams, an art world intervention by the authors We Won’t Fly For Art and workshop programmes such as Zero Dollar Laptop workshops (in partnership with Access Space in Sheffield). It has supported research projects such as Telematic Dining by Pollie Barden and developmental artist residencies, such as Make-Shift by Helen Varley Jamieson and Paula Crutchlow.

These projects and practices have a number of things in common:

* They work with the metaphors, tools, cultures and processes of networked culture in the context of environmental collapse;

* They are led by artistic sensibilities (incorporating but not governed by utilitarian or theoretical concerns);

* They generate unruly and provocative relationships between symbolic meanings and material effects;

* They are metalogues – their content and their structures are in a conversation with each other, expounding and resonating with their subjects. Their ends and means are well aligned. [16] (Bateson 1972)’ (Catlow 2012)

Why Media Art Ecologies now?

Through the Internet we all now have access to data about historic and contemporary carbon emissions. We also find visualisations of this data that provide concise and accessible graphical arguments for thinking, feeling and acting in a coordinated way at this historical moment [17] [18].

Data shows an exponential rise in global carbon emissions since the 1850s, starting with the UK. UK carbon emissions have dropped as a percentage of global emissions by region (CDIAC 2010). At the same time the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted by the UK has steadily increased since the start of the industrial revolution to annual levels now higher than 500 million tonnes (Marland, Boden and Andres 2008). This data shows how successful the UK was, during the industrial revolution, at spreading the production methods that would turn out to promote a model of sole reliance on economic growth and fossil fuels. The logic and infrastructures of capitalism are now collapsing in tandem with the environment (Jackson 2009). At the same time networked technologies and behaviours are proliferating. Social and economic transactions take place at increased speed but our existing economic and social models are unsustainable and the consequences of continuing along the current path appear catastrophic for the human species (Jackson 2009). This is a critical moment to reflect on how the technologies we invent and distribute will form our future world.

These developments in peer to peer culture provide a backdrop to the projects presented as part of the Media Art Ecologies programme which, in turn, proposes that a focus on the networked cultures in which the work is produced, supports ecological ways of thinking, privileging attention to complex and dynamic interaction, connectedness and interplay between artist viewer/participant and distributed materials. Its projects have been developed within independent communities of artists, technologists and activists, theorists and practitioners centered around Furtherfield in London (and internationally, online), Cube Microplex in Bristol and Access Space in Sheffield. They identify the simultaneous collapse of the financial markets and the natural environment as intrinsically linked with human uses of, and relationships with, technology. They take contemporary cultural infrastructures (institutional and technical), their systems and protocols, as the materials and context for artistic production in the form of critical play, investigation and manipulation. This work, at the intersection of artistic and technical cultures, generates alternative spaces and new perspectives; alternative to those produced by (on the one hand) established ‘high’ art-world markets and institutions and (on the other) the network of ubiquitous user owned devices and social apps. These practices play within and across contemporary networks (digital, social and physical), disrupting business as usual and the embedded habits and attitudes of techno-consumerism.” (http://www.furtherfield.org/features/articles/diwo-do-it-others-%E2%80%93-no-ecology-without-social-ecology)

* Project 3: Feral Trade Cafe

“We will end this essay by describing an early project developed as part of this programme, Feral Trade Café [20] by Kate Rich, an exhibition that was also a working café. Feral Trade Café served food and drink traded over social networks for 8 weeks in the Summer of 2009 and exhibited a retrospective display of Feral Trade goods alongside ingredient transit maps, video, bespoke food packaging and other artifacts from the Feral Trade network. Since 2003 participants in the project (usually travelling artists and curators) have acted as couriers, carrying edible produce around the world with them on trips they are taking anyway and delivering them to depots (friends’ and colleagues’ flats or workplaces), mostly independent art venues in Europe and North America. Rich has crafted a database through which couriers can log their journeys, tracking the details of sources, shipping and handling for all groceries in the network ‘with a micro-attention usually paid to ingredient listings’ (Catlow 2009). This database [21] is at the heart of the artwork, with special attention given to the day to day challenges and obstacles met in its distribution – tracking the on-the-fly street level tactics employed, out of necessity, by a distribution network with no staff, vehicles, storage facilities or business plan.

‘Courier Report FER-1491 DISPATCHED: 13/05/09 DELIVERED: 15/05/09 – ali jones spent a few hours trying to start a car using various techniques. eventually got it moving with a push start with the help of a stranger who was leaving behind a night of print-making.convoyed to cube where friend took parcel in her van while i parked dubious car at garage for fixing.’ [21] (Feral Trade Courier, 2009)

The café stocked and served a selection of Feral Trade products from a menu including coffee from El Salvador, hot chocolate from Mexico and sweets from Montenegro, as well as locally sourced bread, cake, vegetables and herbs. Diverse diners – local residents and long-distance lorry drivers (from Poland and Germany) – were served their food along with waybills (drawing information from the database) documenting the socially facilitated transit of goods to their plate.

The invitation to the exhibition promised visitors a convivial setting from which to “contemplate broader changes to our climate and economies, where conventional supply chains (for food delivery and cultural funding) could go belly up.” The café provided a local trading station and depot for the Feral Trade network, and a meeting place for local community food activists for research and discussion. It’s worth noting that a year later a Government Spending Review announced a cut of nearly 30% to the Arts Council of England’s budget. (BBC News 2010) Two years later global food prices were up by over 40% and set to rise another 30% in the next 10 years. (Neate 2011). A number of small new projects continue to develop from meetings between the gallery community and local community activist groups working on sustainability issues.

The materials and methods employed by this artwork, that is also a functioning café, are diverse and non-standard. The café is not scaleable and generates no jobs or surplus, let alone profit. It may build ‘social capital’, what Bordieu defines as a form of capital ‘made up of social obligations (‘connections’) which is convertible in certain conditions into economic capital and may be institutionalised in the form of a title of nobility.’ (Bordieu1986) However, it is uncertain whether this will apply to Rich as any ‘nobility’ she might acquire is undermined by her purposeful maintenance of the project’s ambiguous status as an artistic project.

For this essay we present Feral Trade Café alongside Bauwens’ proposal for alternative P2P infrastructures.

We propose that while the work is not a design, formula or practical, alternative business model (either for an artwork or a café) for mass adoption, it can be considered an ecological system for ‘mass diffusion of intellect’ (Bauwens 2005). Interaction with the project engages participants in different ways of sensing, operating and valuing the world. It is a most inefficient way of trading.

The work poses strange questions as it oscillates between artwork (sensual, expressive, rhetorical) and catering (utilitarian, literally nourishing) and to consider the meaning of our lives and vocations in local communities and a functional future society. ‘Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task.’ (Jackson 2009: 182) Feral Trade focuses our attention on the truly pleasurable aspects of social exchange that are lost in our quest for affluence. ‘Creating resilient social communities is particularly important in the face of economic shocks.[…] The strength of a community can make the difference between disaster and triumph in the face of economic collapse.’ (Jackson 2009: 182)

Feral Trade is both art and a lived, alternative co-created system for trading and serving food that refuses commercial exploitation, contributes meaning and strengthens bonds across an existing community. A distinctive, memorable and sensual way for people to interact, to socialise and savour the socio-political ingredients of a meal eaten while discussing strategies for avoiding ethical discomfort. Most powerfully, it is a lived critique and reinvention of a fundamental aspect of everyday life (feeding ourselves) through the subtle tactics of manipulation and play (by its many participants).

It is our contention that by engaging with these kinds of projects, the artists, viewers and participants involved become less efficient users and consumers of given informational and material domains as they turn their efforts to new playful forms of exchange. These projects make real decentralised, growth-resistant infrastructures in which alternative worlds start to be articulated and produced as participants share and exchange new knowledge and subjective experiences provoked by the work.”

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