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 reproducible and saleable product has devalued and undermined the vital contribution art has had, and could continue to have on culture and society.
The aims of my projects were to investigate this problematic through collaborative poetry, performance and multi-media art whilst resisting the “pressure to succumb to the laws of the reproductive economy” (Phelen 1993: 146). There were two dimensions to my project. Firstly, there was the performance of a collaboratively produced multi-media and performance poetry show, which included collaborative film projects and music productions and the interactions of a live audience. Secondly there was the design, launch and maintenance of a collaborative, interactive and open design poetry website. This website also facilitated the launch of ‘The Really Huge Poetry Project’, which was an entirely collaborative poetry writing initiative run through the website, SMS messaging and at the live shows.
The research and development paper produced previously serves as a literature review outlining the main theories and ideas that led me to create these projects. The projects were intended as enquiries into the effects and influences of digital media technologies, collaborative approaches to performance and the problems posed by commodification and the reproducibility of artistic content. The purpose of this evaluation, is to consider the relevance, success and further learning opportunities to be taken from my two projects.
Will Stopha is Feeling a Little Under the Weather
A Live Multimedia Poetry Show
‘Feeling a Little Under the Weather’ was a one-hour multi-media performance poetry show that played to audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August of 2008. The aim of the show was to explore the ever-fast nature of technological ‘progress’ and our interactions with it. The concept for the show was inspired by some key extracts from both academic and non-academic texts, which were read as part of my research into performance poetry art and the forces of digital reproduction and commodification; most notably, the work of Phillips (2005), Blais and Ippolito (2006) and Williams (1989). These theorists all suggest to varying degrees that commodification and the processes of technological innovation and obsoletion make us sick or make society in some way sick or dysfunctional. The concept of the performance was therefore to explore this idea of personal and sociological sickness in relation to technology, progress and commodification, indeed the show asked its audiences to consider if they too may be ‘feeling a little under the weather’.
Selling the Show and Targeting Audience
The show was part of the comedy and theatre section of the Edinburgh festival programme. As the content of the performance was about society and culture, it was appropriate that the shows audience be diverse. The real world context of the show and its place at the Edinburgh festival meant that the show had to be popular and accessible and to some extent this means that the show had to exist within the codes, conventions and therefore restrictions of genre and audience expectation. Already this presents some interesting issues for consideration as the show was written in the light of a particular audience, the style and content were both tailored to suit and appeal to audiences of stand-up comedy.
“Once you relinquish the saleability of your art now, you’re then freer to have your own thoughts because in so far as you’re interested in marketing what you do, you have to be pre-occupied by a fantasy of what people want; it makes you compliant. It makes you servile to a market.” (Philips 2005: ITV)
This was concerning to me initially as my fringe show did have a clear ‘mode of address’; it was informal, light-hearted and satirical, designed to be both comical and thought provoking in order to convey the theoretical contents of my studies, whilst appealing to a comedy going audience. It is therefore important to wonder if the show had already succumbed to the machinery of commodification during the process of promotion, marketing and press release. The compromise here seemed necessary, indeed, Philips’ assertion that the ‘new sane artist’ may have to dispense with markets and saleability is possibly a utopian idealism. In order to ask questions of that very system of hostile competition, one must engage in the processes of packaging and commodifying a creative product. Blais and Ippolito (2006), in their study of new media and graphic art, talk about art as an anti body fighting the viruses in the social body that are caused by the rapid and reckless growth of technology. They discuss the need for art to come out of the safe ‘nursery’ and operate in genuinely risky and contagious environments, just as antibodies do, indeed this is where antibodies develop their infection fighting qualities. It seemed unavoidable that my show had to engage with the systems of marketing and promotion in order to secure a venue at the festival and inform audiences of the production. It was essential that the show needed to engage with the real environment of festival arts and leave the creative safety of the ‘nursery’. This meant that already there was a clear contradiction in my practice, an unavoidable contest; I had to make the show saleable in order to ensure the performance could go ahead but I was also conscious of resisting the need to serve a market. Williams (1989) talks further about this in his book ‘Resources for Hope’ where he discusses the ‘limitations’ on artistic freedom.
“Freedom in our kind of society amounts to the freedom to say anything you wish, providing you can say it profitably”. (Williams. 1989: 88).
The show had to play to an audience and this meant that a desire to completely resist the machinery of commodification was impossible to realise fully. There were some choices that could be made to at least emphasise an intention to resist the pressures of ‘the market’ but I had to content myself with these being more metaphorical than actual. To this end, the performance played as part of the Edinburgh ‘free fringe’ festival and it was on at 2.15pm. The free nature of the show meant that I did relinquish the saleability of the performance at least in terms of profitability. The show’s daytime slot, and the fact that it was free, ensured that my audiences were surprisingly diverse, from more elderly people, in Edinburgh for the military tattoo, to children and families, as well as my more expected audience. This audience diversity kept the show fresh and live, not one performance was the same as another and never was there an opportunity to pitch the show to a clear ‘target audience’ but rather base the performance almost entirely on the community of spectators that arrived on any one day. This was both pleasing and successful as the intension behind the live performative part of my project was to keep a sense of ‘now’ or what Benjamin (1999) called ‘aura’. Phelan (1993) also asserted the importance of live performance as being “in a strict ontological sense, non-reproductive” (Phelan 1993: 148). Although the prepared material was the same every day, it was always entirely different in reception and delivery, sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes awkward.
No Longer Just ‘Watching’
Community, Collaboration and Making Meaning
“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).
It is apparent that the form of live performance served well to resist processes of commodification and reproduction. It was all the more appropriate as the content of the show was asking questions of individualism and isolation in this age of technology revolution, indeed the opening poem entitled ‘My Various Journeys Through Life (without ever actually having to get up from my office chair)’ invited audiences to reflect on their relationship with the computer screen. The premise of this piece seemed highlighted by the social and communal environment in which it was received; the form match beautifully with the content and meaning. Indeed the show considered themes like depression, loneliness, isolation and paranoia all within the environment of a live audience community. This raised some ethical issues for ensuring that, as far as possible, the environment was facilitated to feel safe and open. To this end it was made clear to people at the very start that some level of involvement was encouraged. The ‘fringe’ audience were always fine with this and even appreciative.
In his recent lecture on the 18th birthday of the Internet, David Gauntlett talked of ‘a passive paralysis’ and a mass audience conditioned to ‘watch’. He went on to call for a shift from ‘watching’ to ‘action’ and a resurgence in ‘making’. Live performance offers a unique dynamic in this respect as it invites audiences into the active role of making meaning rather than the more passive job of ‘watching’, indeed collaborative poems and collective video poems formed an integral part of the show, recognising spectators not as ‘watchers’ but as meaning makers, interacters and poetic contributors. Several members of the shows participatory audience left reviews of the show on The Times Edinburgh Fringe website. Two are cited here:
“This show concentrates on technology and its impact on the human condition and Will Stopha brings it to life with a blend of visuals, music and poetry. The energy and warmth generated at a Will Stopha show is a guarantee, with audience participation and Will’s ability to both entertain and engage. If you want to both ponder upon cultural theory and the impact of media technology on community AND be uplifted with some beautiful poetry and laughter, this is a show not to miss.” (Audience member review taken from The Times Edinburgh Fringe website. http://www.edfringe.com August 2008).
“Stopha takes you on a journey that uncovers the darker, negative side of our fast paced society. He then flips it all upside down and leaves you, not ‘under the weather’ but feeling good about the world and normal in yourself. A feelgood show that challenges you to take a brighter view of the world. Go to see this show if, like me, you’re drained by city life. It’ll change your mind and leave you smiling and proud to be part of a community.” (Audience member review taken from The Times Edinburgh Fringe website. http://www.edfringe.com August 2008).
The ‘community’ or ‘participatory’ context, which these audience members describe, is an important part of the show’s success, as is the recognition of the current ‘now’ nature of the shows content as both of these points highlight the effectiveness and appropriacy of the form of performance. Its risky, live nature engages and involves audiences and resists the safety of reproductive and contrived formula.
Finding Wisdom in the Crowd
Collective poetry and ‘non-professional’ performance
The performance was collaboratively produced. The collaborative nature of the shows production is important both in terms of theory and practice as the inevitable compromise of collaboration undermines the individualisation and personal ownership of production; it also challenges the machineries of commodification as it requires that you behave more ‘copy left’ that copyright. A writer and music producer collaborated with me in the shows formation and production. Three short films also punctuated the performance. The inspiration for the films came from the work of Henry Jenkins and his study of convergence culture. Jenkins suggests that in an era of media convergence, audiences are no longer just consumers but complex users and producers. The collaborative video poems evidence this and also metaphorically investigate his assertion that there is ‘wisdom in a crowd’. Each willing collaborator offers poetic thoughts in response to topics or questions presented to them. Some of the collaborators are from various creative writing collectives, others are simply passers by on the street. What is interesting is that after a process of editing, the poems became cogent and cohesive poetic works; as audiences encountered them as part of the show, they were often moved, sometimes laughing, sometimes sympathetic. The collective poems seem to organically share a tone or mood and often address similar themes and ideas. Clearly there is a need to consider the processes of mediation that have been applied to the contributors. Music has been added in postproduction to give continuity and the editing process has decided an order of sequence but the contributions are entirely genuine and uninfluenced and a collective ‘word of wisdom’ has emerged. The other aspect of the collective poems, that was unexpected but exciting, was the way that different video contributors were favourites with different audiences. Some received rounds of applause and literally became the ‘star of the show’. This powerfully conveyed ideas of community, conversation and collaboration, which are important parts of the proposed remedies to isolation, competition and passive ‘watching’. These collective video poems also conveyed the ideas of Williams (1989) when he explained his dislike for the ‘way of talking about cultural production’ where one takes ‘a professional tone’ as they belittle the non-professional works of art produced by ‘non-artists’. Williams goes on to assert the irony that it is often from unrecognised or unappreciated sources that significant cultural works are likely to emerge.
Converging Media and the Interpretative Audience
Jenkins’ work on convergence culture is also very helpful when analysing and evaluating the multi-media productions that made up much of the shows form. After using an online mental health therapist to diagnose me as ‘paranoid’ or ‘delusional’, quotes were then read to the audience from large literary texts making reference to ‘old’ media forms. In one poem where I reflect upon my own mental health, I open an old medical dictionary and read the definition of paranoid disorder. As the poem begins, extracts from the book then appear as graphics on the screen behind me as though the audience have now entered the book. These graphics then become moving image and a film montage accompanies the poem, which is also set to a digitally produced audio sound track. This creative use of converging media technologies manifests the active and indeed interactive nature of new media technologies and takes an increasingly media literate and sophisticated audience on a more involved journey through the ideas and themes of the show, which they then add meaning to, interpret and respond.
In their book ‘At the Edge of Art’, Blais and Ippolito (2006) discuss the functions of antibodies in their interactions with viruses and then apply these qualities to Art in the way it interacts with technology. One of these important functions is the way that antibodies ‘mimic’ the virus in order to develop a strong defence. This theory can also be applied to the poetry show because, although the content of the performance was asking questions of technology and its unchecked power, the show still used new media technologies in the shows production, much as Blais and Ippolito suggest. This way the tone of the show is hopeful; at no point did I intend to convey a message of techno-phobia, but rather an active and creative approach to the use of technology and an alternative and interpretative approach to new media communications.
An Interactive, Collaborative and ‘Open Design’ Website
In my research, I encountered two suggested strategies for resisting the processes of commodification and what Williams (1989) calls a ‘limitation on artistic freedom’. The first strategy was to oppose the trappings of reproducibility through live performance and collaboration and as outlined above. The other approach that became clear was to use free digital publishing and the interactive potential of web2.0.
In his inaugural lecture at the University of Westminster in November 2008, entitled ‘Participation Culture, Creativity, and Social Change’ David Gauntlett asserted that our ecological, political and economic futures require that society becomes increasingly active and interactive and that we overcome the ‘passive paralysis’ of being conditioned ‘watchers’. He spoke of being an optimist and suggested that web2.0 may embody this change from ‘watcher’ to ‘maker’. WilliamStopha.com is a poetry website designed to encourage interaction and participation. Whilst there is poetic content posted on the site that could just be ‘watched’, the whole website is entirely open and editable. And the interface and navigation is designed to encourage users to post their own creative work. Users have also ‘made’ and customised their own pages, edited and modified each other’s work and engaged in forum discussions and analysis. WilliamStopha.com has facilitated the sharing of poetic works, imaginings, ideas and feedback in line with the values of what Lessig (2004) terms ‘free culture’. The site resources the creation of poetic artwork that is not owned or controlled and operates outside of the structures of protectionism and copyright. Again, this means that the content and this cultural resource are more ‘free’ as it resists the ‘machinery of commodification and operates more according to the values of copyleft.
Open Mic and Feedback
Forming communities of creativity and shared opinion
The ‘Open Mic’ and ‘Feedback’ pages were the first pages designed and published. The idea was to create a space for poets, poetry enthusiasts and contributors to have a collaborative space to write, contribute and publish their creative imaginings. The intension was that contributors would work collaboratively but this did not occur naturally and required more direct facilitation. Instead, contributors just wrote their own work and left other people’s contributions untouched. This meant that the page became a shared sketchbook of poetry but each piece was a discreet work. The ‘Feedback’ page was intended to be a forum space where users engaged in discussion or posted responses, which has been successful to some extent although the dialogue has generally been one dimensional with just singular comments rather than any real developed dialogue. However even at the simplest level, this page illustrates the importance of listening; sharing ideas and response is also vital as this helps to resource and “express cultural continuity and identity”. (Mohammadi, & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189).
After reflecting on the sites success, I was dissatisfied with the limits and restrictions for users and identified some contradictions between theory and practice. In his paper ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’, Raymond (2000) considered changes in the approach to how content is designed and shared. WilliamStopha.com was intended to be an exercise in the ‘bazaar’ style of construction where a plurality of contributors collectively shape its development rather that a central contrived ‘truth’. My concern was that while the poetic content being posted was original and plural, the structures and format, even the very metaphor of graffiti being used as a continuity design theme were fixed so the contributors were not able to exercise free creativity, in fact while their poems were their own, they were sharing them inside my cathedral! This was changed and the site now fulfils its objective much more successfully. The code was developed to allow greater design control. Now contributors could choose colour, font and text size. As well as uploading images, sound files and Mpegs, contributors could now upload backgrounds and make new pages. 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.
One user called Komic created his own page, which he customised and adapted creating his own themes and metaphors. Soon five others followed suit and then posted links on the ‘Open Mic’ page connecting to their own dedicated poetry page. This has made more problems in terms of limiting destructive hacks to the site but the outcomes have been very pleasing. The site is now a much more legitimate expression of ‘free culture’ and a ‘bazaar’ style of web design and content production. The site is truly collaborative and open; The webmaster rarely needs to deal with destructive hacks or clean up dumped files on the server or occasionally fix glitches, beyond that the design, maintenance, structure, growth, map and content provision for the site is managed by its users. This means that developments have occurred that very well may not have been possible 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 ‘bazaar’ model has already benefited the site’s progress and the ‘wisdom of a crowd’ has contributed directly to making meaning and change. WilliamStopha.com is succeeding in promoting and facilitating interactive communities and meaning makers. In so doing, the site is effectively undermining the machineries of reproduction and market saleability at least in terms of the value it affords both expert and non-specialist contributors, whilst resisting the laws of copyright and intellectual ownership and instead applying the values of free culture and creative sharing.
The Really Huge Poetry Project
Participatory Cultures and Creative Collective Meaning.
‘The Really Huge Poetry Project’ was launched in January 2008. The aim was to try and get visitors to the site to contribute to the same piece of work to build a ‘crowd poem’. I created a new dedicated page and suggested some topics for reflection. I then emailed contacts, sent out messages and advertised the project at all live shows and poetry venues. 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 but some contributors did create new topics. 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 different, and a different tone may develop crating a new concise work out of the collective contributions of strangers.
As I have undertaken these two projects, I have become increasingly convinced that a collaborative approach towards creative arts production is truly worthwhile. The processes of collaboration, artistic compromise and sacrifice are most often frustrating, only partially achievable but ultimately beneficial. The learning curve stays steep and the plural and heterogeneous context of idea sharing, selection and production serve to resist the alternative drivers of recognition, profitability and power. Both the live performance and the open web design invited me to relinquish sole control and to give away a sense of self or insisted gain. This is not to say that there are not inherent contradictions throughout my work, the ‘laws of the reproductive economy’ (Phelan 1993) are entirely impossible to ignore and there is no doubt that I had to conform to market demands in order to even secure a run for the show. This means that some of my work is only metaphorical and therefore flawed as evidence of my theories. It is also important to note that while I have become a strong believer in active interpretation and the merits of a plurality of contributions, collaborative creativity is painfully hard work and most often slow. Exciting outcomes have been observed and appreciated, but at large expense to time and stress levels. The organisation and facilitation of collaborative art is not as shared as the ultimate production or outcome and smaller, more homogenous partnerships with clear vision are fundamental if the collaborative outcome is to be realised.
It is probably fair to say that the original intentions of the projects, those being to foster active participation and resist the pressures of commodification and reproducibility were generally realised to some extent. The performance evidenced a clear commitment to ‘now’, which Phelan asserts is by definition anti-reproduction and within the restrictions of the Edinburgh Fringe market, the show sought to resist the need to be saleable. With the website, limitations were more satisfyingly overcome and a mind set shift is evident; now recognising ‘audiences’ as potential ‘contributors’ and ‘interpreters’. This does offer challenge to the pressures of saleability and profit return, as audiences are no longer merely consumers, or worse still customers, but rather needed and valid interacters and users.
My gratitude and acknowledgements extend to all those who contributed to these projects; to the collective video poets, the performance interpreters, the show’s collaborators and all those people who have contributed to or made meaning from the open design website and the ‘Really Huge Poetry Project’.
Adorno, T (1991) The Culture Industry, London: Routledge.
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.
Clarke, J & Hall, S & Jefferson, T & Roberts, B (1975) Subcultures, Cultures and Class in Hall, S & Jefferson, T (eds) Resistance through Rituals, Cambridge: Routledge.
Fiske, J (1989) Understanding Popular Culture, London and New York: Routledge.
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.
Willis, P (1990) Common Culture, Buckingham: Open University Press.
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).