My research has been 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 my study has returned me to a simple premise; increased commodification and the ever over-whelming focus on art as saleable product has devalued and invalidated the invaluable contribution art has had, and should continue to have on culture and society. I aim to investigate this problematic through my project which seeks to create artistic comment through poetry and performance which resists this “pressure to succumb to the laws of the reproductive economy” (Phelen, P). There are two dimensions to my project, the performance – an interactive, live poetry show and the design, launch and maintenance of a collaborative, interactive and open design website.
Feeling a Little Under the Weather?
It was important that my project resisted the issues of reproducibility and commodification. Easy reproducibility is a feature of a mass-produced culture of commodification and it is especially easy, rampant in fact, in the context of Internet communication, digital copying and peer-to-peer file sharing. Walter Benjamin (1999) identifies that 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”. It is for this reason that I have produced a live performance poetry show entitled ‘Feeling a Little Under the Weather?’ The show is written and produced collaboratively. This is important to note, as collaboration is essential in non-reproducible performance where a hierarchy of ideas can be resisted. This is not to say that everybody is an artist, or that all contributions are of equal quality, but rather to recognise that meaning is found in exchange. Communication involves contribution, listening and interpretation.
“Interpretation is worked out as a performance between artists and spectators (whether ‘professional’ or ‘non-specialist’)… the complicity of the audience.” (Jones & Stephenson, 1999, 14).
In this case, the show was written by ‘strangers’. In addition to two writers and three producers, ‘strangers’ were asked to contribute topics for the show to address. Members of the public, and audiences who attended the shows were also invited to offer lines or words of poetry, which were then collated together to form ‘collective poems’. These ‘collective poems’ were filmed and edited together and then screened as part of the show and developed ongoingly throughout the show’s run. This means that this show is an outworking of collaboration and audience interpretation, interaction and feedback. The show is previewing in early August as part of the ‘Camden Fringe Festival’ before featuring at the ‘Edinburgh Festival’ throughout August. Further evidence, analysis and reflection on this component of the project will be submitted in August 2008.
The show’s form and content investigate the concerns researched around consumerist culture and its ill effect on community and society. The themes of the collective poems and much of the inspiration behind my work is taken from the work of Blais and Ippolito, who investigate the effect of fast moving and ever developing technology on culture and society. Their metaphors of technology, obsolescence and consumerism as a virus in culture and art as a vital antibody fighting infection in society are important influences in the content and form of the performance. Indeed, the show’s title is in itself an extension of the metaphor for a viral illness. A further example is the final poem entitled ‘Give me a Minute’ the poet expresses his desperate need for a break in ‘progress’; a pause in ‘development’, which might allow him the opportunity to question the ethics of such fast technological growth.
“Unlike microprocessor speeds, the human capacity to foresee the ethical consequences of technology does not double every eighteen months”. (Blais & Ippolito Blais, 9, 2006).
At the end of the piece, which is also the end of the show, the poet implores the audience to stop and give him just one more minute, at the same time he unplugs the power from the mains causing black out, muting the microphones and switching off all projection. The final lines of the show then take place in the comparative darkness and with no amplification.
The Language of Collaboration – the ‘Collective Poem’
The ‘collective poems’ were inspired by studies I encountered during the research for the project. Sreberny Mohammadi’s work on the difference between ‘big’ and ‘small’ media showed that a broadcast medium with a clear ideological message often serves to limit the corporate imagination, to reproduce culture according to the dominant hegemony. She identifies the potential of ‘small’ media to slowly and subtly subvert this dominance from the margins. She suggests that there may be immense political power in ‘small’ media to “develop public spaces in contexts where none seems possible”. (Mohammadi & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189). She notes that ‘big’ media does not “pay sufficient attention to indigenous channels of communication that often express cultural continuity and identity.” To this end, I decided that the live performance show must include the opinions and contributions of ‘ordinary’ people; the production of this show must use ‘small’ media to source content from the ‘bottom-up’ rather than the ‘top-down’.
“Small Media can be effective in undermining a strong regime with mass media reach.” (Mohammadi & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189).
I took my digital video camera to several destinations across London. I explained the shows concept to people I met and invited them to share their thoughts. With each person who was willing, I played a game of verbal consequences with them on camera. The game simply requires them to respond to a word I suggest with a word of interest to them, which they feel is connected. For example, in one case, I offered the word ‘technology’. After a moments thought, my partner in this particular game responded with the word ‘phobic’. On another occasion the ‘stranger’ chose to say ‘robot’. Robot was later used as the starting word and another player responded with ‘wars’. When linked together a poem began to emerge in response to the subject of technology, which began: ‘Phobic robot wars fast virus’. Through the process of video editing, I then formed a poetic montage of words linked by the public’s responses to the same subject area. More of these contributions will be filmed and included during the shows run at each of the festivals so that the ‘collective poems’ develop and change as the show progresses.
In the filming of these pieces, I asked each willing ‘stranger’ to look directly into the camera and not at me. The reasoning for this was to avoid a documentary style interview and instead encourage a performative presentation. In the edit too this created a changing background to the poem further asserting the diversity and unconnected nature of each contribution, while the eye-line match of the ‘stranger’ meant that the contributions felt very much as one piece. Out of the random difference of the ‘bazaar’ comes a collective message; a strange attractor forms out of chaos.
These ‘collective poems’ along with the interaction of the audience at any given event mean that this project is not produced or structured according to a general individualised formula, where each member of an audience has their own individual experience according to a hierarchy of artist to spectator. The show is clearly not just the opinions of one artist ‘preached’ to an inactive consumer. In this instance, the audience’s collaborative contributions to the arts project, their interpretation and interaction with each other and the artist is crucial to the show’s meaning and purpose.
In ‘The Cathedral and The Bazaar’, Eric Raymond describes how the Internet age has seen the structure and shape of idea communication changed from the ‘Cathedral’ to the ‘Bazaar’. The ‘collective poems’ as well as the collaborative way in which the show was written and produced are intended to demonstrate the creative and empowered way in which the bazaar model can develop and create meaning; creating content outside of a clear ‘broadcast’ structure does not necessarily mean you are left with nonsensical rantings or poor quality art. On the contrary, as Jenkings further identifies, such collective techniques of content creation can expose intelligent imaginings and contributions of real wisdom. This more ‘bazaar’ shaped strategy also requires and resources greater active skills of interpretation in the decoding of meaning. The collective poems stand for the values of listening and active interpretation; the right questions and ideas are found in the spaces between us in the exchange.
The other component of my project is an interactive, collaborative and ‘open design’ website. In my research, I uncovered primarily two suggested strategies for resisting the processes of commodification and what Williams calls a ‘limitation on artistic freedom’. One such strategy was to oppose the trappings of reproducibility through live performance, as outlined above. The other approach that became clear was collaborative poetry art and free digital publishing.
Lawrence Lessig identifies that culture is ‘made’ as product for sale and that such ‘big’ media businesses 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. Such ‘free’ culture was shared in the telling of stories, sharing music, making tapes conversing around ideas and creative imaginings. He asserts “that for the first time in our tradition, the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law… The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture and more and more a permission culture.”
The aim of WilliamStopha.com is to facilitate the sharing of stories, imaginings, ideas and feedback in line with the values of what Lessig terms ‘free culture’; to utilise digital technology and the anarchic potential of file sharing and digital publishing to resource community communication and welcome a plurality of thought, language and style. The site hopes to resource the creation of poetic artwork that is not owned or controlled and operates outside of the structures of protectionism and copyright.
WilliamStopha.com is a collaborative production from the outset. Consultation with other artists and poets along the way has informed the site’s development. Poets who have contributed to the site have also requested new pages and structural changes. Many suggestions have been incorporated into the sites design and appreciated.
The site is a fully editable space where anyone can add layers of text, images, sound or movie files. The site is also open design so any visitor to the site can also create new pages, add backgrounds, change themes and re-order the pages content. The site is an attempt to use the model of the bazaar to facilitate free cultural communication, creativity and interpretation. A feedback page means listening; sharing ideas and response is also vital as this helps to resource ‘cultural continuity and identity’.
Digital Graffiti – Open Design and Content Contribution
The metaphor used in the development of the web space was urban graffiti. A random rotation of walled surfaces forms the background of the web pages. Visitors to the site can double click on an empty piece of wall space anywhere on a page. This opens up a dialogue box where the visitor can write any material they choose. They can also upload images, sound files and video clips. They can create new pages and in doing so actually design the website’s map.
The code design was built upon the work of Walter Zorn. My collaborative partner responsible for building the site then developed the Ajax needed to link it to continually to a database. All the code will be made open source. While there is a consistent theme throughout the website, primarily for the purpose of simplified navigation, the site is entirely open in terms of content production but also in terms of design. For example, let us look at the ‘open mic’ page, which has now had over forty poems posted onto the wall.
In addition to individual pieces of poetry that appear on the page, five poets have created their own pages. Different visitors to the site have selected various colours, fonts and font sizes. Each poem can be clicked and dragged around the page, or even laid over the others, to form different collaborative compositions. Contributors also have complete control over each other’s work. While no one has the authoring rites to delete people’s contributions, they could add to or extend any of the contributions made.
After the site had been published for a few months, one poet who goes by the name ‘Hyped Man’ had posted so many pieces that he wrote a comment on the ‘feedback’ page, which said “Fink I mite need my own page. Wot dya rekon? Lol.” I took this comment seriously and my web designer and I discussed how we could develop the code to allow for contributors to create and design their own pages.
While the theme and navigation systems have stayed consistent, Both Komik and Hyped Man were able to exercise design control over their pages. They chose their own metaphors in terms of back ground image and personalised their space with pictures and tags. Clearly this gives a voice and publishing opportunity to these artists and facilitates a collaborative culture whereby the shape, content and structure of the website is subject to the ‘Bazaar’ model. In this instance opportunities arose for ideas and developments that may not have occurred if sole responsibility for the site’s progress had been managed by one or two rather than the community of site users and producers. In this respect the wisdom of a crowd has already benefited the site’s growth and flexible change and it is my expectation that it will continue to do so.
The Really Huge Poetry Project
Beyond an online publishing space for various poetic artists, the design and ethos of WilliamStopha.com is to encourage the collaboration of those artists and the interactive interpretation of the site’s users and producers. To this end, WilliamStopha.com launched ‘The Really Huge Poetry Project in January 2008. The project’s aim is to initiate the sharing of ideas and creative content – to create a ‘crowd poem’.
Nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request”. (Jenkins, November 27, 2006).
I suggested topics for reflection. Obviously anyone viewing the site can add more topics. The subjects I chose were linked to my research into the unmanageable growth and development of technology and consumer culture and the ‘infection’ this causes in the social body. The premise is simple; helpful ideas lie in the spaces between people and we find them through conversation and collaboration. People were invited to contribute on-line, or at a live show, or via text messages to the ‘Mobile Poetry Phone’. In most cases, the ‘crowd poems’ were haphazard and random, as the bazaar model would presume. Interestingly, the poem around the theme of technology was put into an order by a contributor or visitor to the site.
The poem is made of seven separate contributions. At some point the poem became ordered as above. What is fascinating is that the poem seems to work as a single piece with narrative flow. An analysis of the poem reveals clear themes, recurring imagery and a coherent tone. An ironic humour is evident throughout as is a clear tone of warning and a bleak outlook on the future. Tomorrow the order may be completely different but at this moment a clear ideology is evident and a concise work has been developed.
Communities, Identities, Feedback and Links
The feedbacks page was set up to allow poets and poetry lovers to comment on the work posted to the site and to share ideas, raise suggestions, interpretations and comments. The beginnings of a community are forming around the sharing of new material and feeding back on each other’s contributions. Poets have advertised up coming gigs on the site and other site users have been to see them read or perform their poetry in a real time space context.
While much of the poetry submitted to the site is anonymous, many poets have established identities for themselves and their work. They have posted links to their own websites or MySpace accounts and more links to other artists they recommend. The development of a community of artistic producers and appreciators is in early stages but some evidence has emerged and is pleasing.
Bansal, Keller, Lovink (Eds) (2006) In the Shade of the Commons, New Delhi: Impress.
Benjamin, W (1999) Illuminations, London: Pimlico.
Blais, J & Ippolito, J (2006) At the Edge of Art, London: Thames & Hudson.
Jones, A & Stephenson, A (1999) Performing the body/performing the text, London and New York: Routledge.
Lessig, L (2004) Free Culture, New York: The Penguin Press.
Mohammadi, A & Sreberny-Mohammadi, A (1994) Small Media, Big Revolution, Minneapolis: Minnesota.
Phelan, P (1993) Unmarked, London and New York: Routledge.
Williams, R (1989) Resources of Hope, London and New York: Verso.
Raymond, E (2000) The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Open Publication
License available for PDF download, Eric S. Raymond’s Home Page, 1/5/07, http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings.
Jenkins, H (2006) Collective Intelligence and the Wisdom of Crowds weblog, http://www.henryjenkings.org, 1/12/07).
Broadcasting: TV Programme
Philips, A (2205) The South Bank Show: Going Sane (6/3/2005, UK).