Feeling A Little Under The Weather?
Introducing the project.
The aims and rationale of this project have developed to become clearer and more succinct, but they have not fundamentally changed. The driving questions, which my project seeks to address, have not altered; my research is ultimately concerned with the function and role of art, specifically my art of poetry and spoken word performance, in the context of digital reproduction and new media technology.
Much of this research raises serious reservations about how our current social, economic and political context imposes change upon the creation and communication of culture. Sreberny Mohammadi points out that Big Media fails to “pay sufficient attention to indigenous channels of communication that often express cultural continuity and identity.” (Mohammadi & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189). Lessig develops this idea further when he suggests that big media and commercial business who ‘make’ culture as product for sale have sought to protect themselves by financially out muscling forms of indigenous culture and using the law to protect themselves from ‘free’ forms of cultural production. “The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture and more and more a permission culture.” (Lessig, 2004, 8). Williams (1989) also identifies the importance of a plurality of creative contributions to a healthy society and identifies the commercial intention to commodify culture as a ‘limitation’ on real freedom. Blais and Ippolito (2006) identify technology in our current ‘new media’ context as a virus attacking the social body; technology causes increased isolation and mutates at a speed beyond humanity’s ability to foresee the ethical implications of this apparent ‘progress’. They suggest that the job of art in such a moment is to provide the essential antibodies to fight such an infection.
‘Feeling A Little Under The Weather?’ is a poetic arts project designed to explore these concerns about culture and society at such a time as now. Is our society and mainstream culture, as suggested by Blais, Ippolito, Williams and Phillips infected and ill? Are we as a sociological body of cultural consumers and creators ‘feeling a little under the weather?’ This project intends to ask these questions and in doing so, facilitate part of what could be a collaborative remedy. Inspired primarily by the work of Blais and Ippolito in their theory of art as antibody, this project seeks to use performance and digital Internet sharing and publishing to resist the infections of isolation and commodification.
There are two aspects to the project: The first is performative. As Walter Benjamin (1999) identifies, there is something unique about live performance; it has an aura, which is lost in the repeated reproduction of a ‘live’ art experience where the audience are repositioned, no longer as components of the moment, they instead become critics and removed observers. Phelan also affirms this radical component of performance when she recognises that “performance in a strict ontological sense is non-reproductive”. For this reason, the first part of the project will be a live performance show. Both the form and the content of the show will investigate the concerns researched around consumerist culture and its ill effect on community and society. The content will be poetic material inspired by Blais and Ippolito’s six stages of art as antibody: perversion, arrest, revelation, execution, recognition and perseverance. This theory will inform both the form and the content of the show. The form will be live performances made up of poetic contributions from the participatory audience, wider communities of artists, art appreciators and interpreters. These contributions will be sourced not only at the show but also through networking and collaborative projects in the months preceding the show.
The second aspect of the project will utilise digital technology to resource community communication and shared stories, to utilise technology to share ideas and cultural content in line with the values of what Lessig terms ‘free culture’. This other dimension to the project is not unconnected and will function with the show but it also seeks to use the anarchic potential of file sharing and digital publishing to welcome a plurality of thought, language and style, to create a poetic artwork that is not owned or controlled. In doing so, this part of the project mimics common uses of digital technology (one of the functions of antibody) but crucially it functions outside of the structures of protectionism and copyright.
“This is not a protectionism to protect artists. It is instead a protectionism to protect certain forms of business. Corporations threatened by the potential of the Internet to change the way both commercial and noncommercial culture are made and shared have united to induce lawmakers to use the law to protect them.” (Lessig, 2004, 9).
The ‘War On Worry’
The first pilot was a live poetry spoken word performance. The show was performed everyday for three weeks as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Arts Festival from 3rd to 25th August 2007. The show was titled ‘War on Worry’. The premise of the show was to ironically subvert the dominant idea of fear in the age of a ‘War on Terror’ and instead take a light hearted look at the things we all worry about and the pain, exhaustion and often futility of anxiety. As part of the show, a diverse selection of people were invited to appear on camera and share their anxieties and concerns and to share their thoughts on worry generally. The collaborators were strangers and there was no form of criteria for their inclusion in the project, other than their willingness to be on camera. These video clips were then edited and included in the live show to punctuate the live material. Extracts of the show and the video clips can be seen at http://www.williamstopha.com.
The ‘Really Huge Poetry Project’
The second pilot was a collaborative poem for online production. Various subjects were suggested across many communication channels including live performances, SMS messaging, networking platforms, instant messaging, community websites and chat environments. Collaborators were invited to contribute to ‘The Really Huge Poetry Project’ in a number of ways; they could email or reply to the message posts and bulletins, send a text message to the ‘Mobile Poetry Phone’ or go directly to the website and add text, image, video or sound direct to the poetry page. It is impossible to alter someone else’s contribution but the order can be changed, the size, font and colour can all be changed at will and there is no order of who posted first or last. An example of a collaborative poem as part of this project can be seen at http://www.williamstopha.com.
The outcomes of the pilots have presented both challenge and satisfaction, provided interesting insights and obviously raised further issues for consideration. On his research Weblog, Henry Jenkins considers issues of collective intelligence and, what Surowiecki terms, the wisdom of crowds. In the context of gaming, blogging and fandom, Jenkins considers the insights of diverse cultures in tackling problems and questions in real world contexts. “Nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request.” (Jenkins, November 27, 2006). In the case of the ‘War on Worry’ pilot show, the content and structure of the show’s form were directly based around the contributions of an unknown collective. The huge strength of collective intelligence as a standpoint, and recognising a crowd as a pluralism of potentially wise insights, is that “the collective choices of 100,000 may very well be better than the choices of 1,000 experts”. (Edery cited in Jenkins 2006). It was very pleasing creatively to base the content and form of the show upon the contributions of the crowd.
In ‘The Cathedral and The Bazaar’, Eric Raymond describes how the Internet and particularly the open source and Linux movements have forever changed how information is shared and understood. The structure and shape of idea communication has changed from the Cathedral to The bazaar. This was also evident in the pilots as the entirely random nature of contributions built up to form a cohesive narrative. The show aimed to focus on issues of anxiety and worry but the light hearted contributions of our random public interviews meant that issues of terrorism, immigration and global warming were discussed alongside alien invasion and the apparently aggressive nature of swans!
However, while the pilots did go some way towards engaging the collective intelligence of audiences and collaborators, the live show contributions went through a clear process of mediation. The contributions were edited together and cut into under two-minute sections. The clips were then screened to an audience in a broadcast style. The context of much of the theory is in an unmediated, pluralist and narrowcast context, which could mean that the contributions retain a sense of ‘aura’ and greater validity because they have not been subjected to post production processes. It could be argued that while the participation and involvement of collaborators was a random exchange, the finished film clips were mediated, constructed and therefore ultimately controlled; a project that began as a study of the bazaar may have ended up more in the cathedral than planned.
The second pilot, ‘The Really Huge Poetry Project’ went some way toward tackling this issue of construction and mediation. In this pilot, there was no interference beyond the proposed subject for contributions. The participators posted their story or poetic item in any order and in whatever language or style they chose. A visitor to the sight can read the collective poem in whatever order they choose. In this context, the artist is working more as a catalyst; they are responsible for the creative premise and the facilitation of the responses but the artwork itself “is worked out as performance between the artist and the spectators (whether ‘professional’ or non-specialist).” (Jones & Stephenson, 1999, 14).
The disappointing aspect of this second pilot was the lack of diverse involvement. In order for the theories of ‘collective intelligence’ and the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to be fully applicable, a greater number and diversity of contributions are required. This has raised issues of promotion and communication, another function of the ‘catalytic’ and ‘facilitatory’ artist. In the preparation of the project itself, the collaborative aspects will need to be more widely circulated into more diverse cultural areas. Blais and Ippolito talk of the safe environments and ‘nurseries’ in which antibodies are cultivated but assert that for antibodies to ‘target invaders’ they must be exposed to hostile environments. Similarly “art has its own nursery: the schools, studios and galleries where it has been traditionally cultivated and appreciated… art cannot protect the social body if confined to the nursery, art is most effective when it pervades the whole circulatory system.” (Blais & Ippolito, 11, 2006). If this project is to engage with these theoretical concepts more directly, then a larger field of participators, collaborators and interactive spectators needs to be accessed, so that the wisdoms of the crowd are better received and the function of art as antibody is more directly exposed.
Conclusion and Recommendations for the Final Project
Overall the pilots were both pleasing, rewarding and generally successful in their aim; they directly engaged with the questions and issues central to this creative research project and they also clearly related to and were inspired by the body of critical theory surrounding this topic area. Whilst the challenges raised require new creative responses, it was good that both the content for the collective poem and the contributions in the live show were taken from the ‘bazaar’ model of cultural communication. It was also good to realise that the live performance pilot was so different and dependent on the assembled audience from day to day. The ‘Really Huge Poetry Project’ was especially exciting as its form and content embodies the values of ‘free culture’ so clearly.
Both pilots were also very helpful in terms of the problems they encountered. In the case of the ‘War on Worry’ live performance, issues of how the tension is negotiated between the facilitation of creative contributions and the control or manipulation of ideas needs to be further worked through in the writing and planning stages of the actual project. The online publication of the collective poems clearly needs to be better promoted and communicated to potential collaborators. Arts collectives and networking sites such as ‘Critical Network’, ‘Art Rabbit’ and ‘Rhyzome’ will be used more effectively to build larger cultural bases for collaboration but ultimately the project will have to function increasingly outside of the safer nurseries of artistic creation and appreciation, and this also requires more creative thought.
The pilots were immensely helpful and the lessons learned will now inform the planning and preparation in the build up to the implementation of the final project. The best news however, as Jenkins asserts, is that no one person has the answer but a plethora of possible solutions may well present themselves within the collaboration of a wise crowd.