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<nettime> London.ZIP - Digital Media Arts in London
Armin Medosch on Thu, 20 Nov 2003 12:35:56 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> London.ZIP - Digital Media Arts in London


[This text was written for the DMZ festival, a media arts festival in
London that happened last weekend, 14th and 15th of November.  DMZ refers
to 'demilitarised zone' both in the sense of neutral zone between enemies
and in geek speak that part of servers and internet facilities that is not
protected by firewalls and openly accessible in the public domain. More
information http://dmz.spc.org/ ]

LONDON.ZIP
Digital Media Art In London
mapped and compressed by Armin Medosch

In the 1960s the group Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) brought the
debris of scientific progress, the fall-out of nuclear deterrence and
space exploration, into the museum and reclaimed it for art. The Korean
artist Nam June Paik started to play with TV sets, this most iconic device
of the emerging consumer society, and turned them into sculptures. Since
then the field of media art has evolved into a multitude of branches and
sub-disciplines. As DMZ celebrates this diversity of media art practice in
London, this article maps out some of the main themes that inform the
debate on media art in general and looks at some of the people, groups,
events and discussions that we have had here in London in particular.

Even though media art now has its own festivals, publications and
university courses, the title of an early show by EAT at Brooklyn Museum,
Some More Beginnings, seems to describe the present situation just as well
as it did the past. As a genre, media art stumbles as much as it
innovates. Because it crosses over into areas of science and technology,
it is considered a complex matter. By definition interdisciplinary, it has
connections with the information and communication technology (ICT)  
industry, science, the art world and the creative industries, but it is
not really a full member of any of these clubs. Rather than having a core
identity, its connections with different parts of society give it a
composite character. Hybrid identities, fluid realities and constant
re-adjustment have become part of the routine.

Media art has both benefited and suffered from its proximity to ICT.
Artists have to cope with the flood of products from the industry, as well
as the boom and bust cycles it goes through. The availability of cheap
consumer technology is a precondition for media art. At the same time,
skills gained in the use of machinery, of hard- and softwares, are of
potential dual-use:  commercial work and art work. During the boom of the
late ‘90s many (but not all) media artists used to do part-time work in
the industry, cross- financing their artistic activities. In addition,
they often benefited from in- kind sponsorship – for example, being
allowed to use high-end machinery during idle times. Occasionally the
industry even provided direct sponsorship. But this support comes at a
price. Sometimes the media art community seems like a creative village
from which the ICT industry can suck in new ideas and innovative practices
on the cheap. But this ambiguous relationship does not alter the fact that
artists are intent on retaining their artistic autonomy and that their
work follows a rationale very different from that of the industry.

Similarly complex is the relationship with the ‘operating system’ of arts.  
Some media artists come from a fine arts background, and on a personal
level there are often strong relationships between media artists and
visual artists. But the art world in general – it goes without saying that
such generalisations always have a limited validity – was and is reluctant
to accept media art. Harsh accusations have been flying from both sides.  
Media artists are ‘considered to have no awareness of their relation to
art history or theory – they are perceived as being concerned only with
the "newness" of technology.’ (1) In turn, the art world is accused of
being technologically ignorant and of clinging to archaic notions of
individualism, originality and authorship. And whereas the work of some
media artists now gets commissioned and collected by museums, others are
intent on keeping themselves outside this system.

At the more ‘political’ end of the media art spectrum there is a
perception that the art system is inherently corrupt, too corrupt to be
bothered with at all. Others simply don’t care if what they do is art or
not. There are less glamorous but perhaps equally important sides of media
art. Examples include community media activism, where artists deploy media
in specific situations as an activist tool, and skills transfer, in which
educators use their artistic background to help others find their feet in
creative work. As dissident voices in an uptight commercial landscape,
community media activists refuse to be subsumed under the ‘creative
industries’ label or to take their celebrated ‘creativity’ to market as
‘cultural entrepreneurs’.  Many of these non-commercial projects run
entirely on volunteer work and donated hardware, while some of the money
is not from arts bodies at all but rather regional development funding.

While there are many ways in which media art lends itself to
instrumentalisation or co-optation, it necessarily exists within a mesh of
symbiotic relationships. Attempting to maintain a sense of autonomy, it
insists on its special opt-out clause, resisting total absorption by any
one of the host cultures with which it cross-breeds.

DIY Technologist

Taking this complexity into account one thing that seems to hold it
together, that makes it meaningful to speak of media art at all, is a
close, complex and often critical relationship with new media technologies
and the market forces that drive their dissemination. Media artists work
with both old and new media. A community radio station with a 10 Watt FM
transmitter can be as valuable a tool as the latest wireless data
networking technology. Sometimes old and new media are combined to
surprising effects. Technologies that are considered redundant by the
mainstream of society are given a second life. Recycling of redundant
hardware, experimenting with free and open source software, and developing
new technologies and new media with a DIY approach, feature strongly in
current media art practice. A creative approach to the technology is often
necessary because commercial products do not contain functions needed for
a particular project. But such practicalities aside, the DIY approach
contains also a political message: Everybody can jump over the
consumer/producer barrier. The technologies that surround us, inform us
and structure more and more aspects of our lives can be actively shaped by
the people who use them. Far from being just something we have to accept
as if they had fallen from the sky, we can mould technologies, invert and
subvert them, explore unintended uses and so drive their development into
more desirable directions.

This does not mean that media artists should be seen only as a tech-savvy
avant-garde that ‘test drives the future’(2). Such a viewpoint would not
sufficiently take into account the way media artists understand themselves
as embedded in a socio-cultural context, pioneering not just new
technologies but rooting them in communities and peer-based
collaborations. The way technology is used by communities in specific
situations and contexts can be far more important than its naked technical
efficiency. This ‘other’ way of conceptualising the tools of modern
communication often dictates that people come together and share skills
and knowledge in order to achieve common goals. Whether as an explicit
goal or as a side-effect of the project in question, knowledge transfer
and (self)education are important notions in media art.

Working with technology is not an end in itself but a way of asserting and
exercising basic freedoms such as communications freedom, media freedom
and free association. By facilitating access and engagement, many media
artists work to increase opportunities for everyone to participate in a
more egalitarian, more democratic media society.

Histories

Problematic though it always is to locate a single moment as a starting
point, it seems that a very important phase for media art in London began
in the mid-1990s. Lisa Haskel organised a series of conferences at the
ICA.  The internet cafe and net art laboratory Backspace was founded in
Clink Street, Southwark. The Islington based organisation Artec educated
young misfits with few other options on the job market in the creative use
of new technologies. Mute magazine opened a discourse on art and
technology with a distinct London tone to it. At the Hypermedia Research
Centre, Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook wrote ‘The Californian
Ideology’, a European critique of the commodification of the internet
promoted by Wired magazine. I/O/D published a magazine, initially on
floppy disk, that subsequently evolved into an art work. At the same time
individual artists such as Thomson & Craighead, Pete Gomes, and others
floated in and around those scenes developing their own practice.

Events

The series of events that Lisa Haskel organised at the ICA between 1993
and 1998 under various titles, from ‘Technophobia’ to ‘Terminal Futures’,
were deliberately eclectic and broad. They happened at a time when the
concepts of interactive and networked media were just being introduced
into an arts context – as opposed to ‘systems’ in the domain of computer
science. The events were put together on the premise that knowledge and
insight about these 'new' technologies were coming from many places –
established artists, scientists, science fiction writers, architects,
people involved in ‘underground’ culture and politics. The format of the
events included workshops and ‘hands-on’ opportunities to experience
interactive and networked media. ‘Quite a few people will have seen the
worldwide web for the first time at these events’. More bazaar than
cathedral (3), they ‘let the audiences piece together all the things they
were hearing and seeing and draw their own conclusions’ (4). These events
set the tone for ‘Art Servers Unlimited’ (Backspace, 1998) and ‘Expo
Destructo’ (Club Open, 1999), both of which brought actors in the field
together within an open media art and activism fair rather than trying to
place media art on a high-cultural plateau. Even though participants came
from many different backgrounds, these events let them experience their
particular concerns on the basis of a mutually shared interest. The DMZ
attempts to reconnect with this 'tradition'.

Spaces

Backspace existed in close proximity to a number of new media companies.  
Internet bandwidth was then very expensive and only businesses could
afford a permanent high-bandwidth connection through a leased dedicated
line. James Stevens, founder of Backspace, convinced his former colleagues
in commercial website construction to share their 512k connection. Through
this shared connection, Backspace enabled young artists to create their
own internet-based works and experiment with audio and video live
streaming over the internet. Live streaming from home was unthinkable at
the time, no one could afford it. Backspace was run as a shared resource.
The users were responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of
infrastructure. People could go there to learn new programming tricks and
share ideas about net art. Backspace also hosted small conferences and
presentations of artists’ work. Among the people who used Backspace for
work, presentation and collaboration were Rachel Baker, Manu Luksch (later
founder of ambientTV.NET), media art curator Ilze Black, Heath Bunting,
Gio D'Angelo, Pete Gomes, Lisa Haskel and many more. The vibrancy of the
place became well known across the networked scenes of Europe and further
afield, while locally it soon became a focal point of the early net art
scene.

Just across the road from Backspace’s home in Winchester Wharf, a few more
artists and new media businesses located in Clink Street Studios also
wanted to participate in the sharing of precious bandwidth. But the
Telecommunications Act of 1984 prohibited it from throwing a cable across
the narrow street to connect with Backspace’s local network. Julian
Priest, then technical director of the company Mediumrare, suggested a
wireless solution. The technology now known as Wi-Fi or Wavelan was used
to establish a connection between the two buildings. About a hundred
bandwidth-hungry users spread over two buildings shared the benefits of a
high speed local network with a gateway to the internet. Creativity, art
and new media business flourished in this little corner of Southwark. As
we will see, it was this local experience of the power of wireless that
would later encourage James Stevens and Julian Priest to launch the
wireless community network project, Consume.

Softwares

Among the lucky few with a fast and (relatively) cheap internet connection
in Clink Street were I/O/D. This group, which consisted of Matthew Fuller,
Simon Pope and Colin Green, was particularly interested in the social
construction of technology. With biting sarcasm they attacked the sell out
of subcultural values in the emerging era of dotcom hype. (5) Their
investigation into the way we understand and use the internet lead them to
create Webstalker, a 'deconstructed' web-browser. Instead of displaying
HTML pages as a sort of digitised advertising brochure, Webstalker strips
conventional webpages of their images and backgrounds and displays the
hyperlink connections between pages and sites. Rather than showing the
web’s glossy surface, it lays bare the structural connections underneath.  
Webstalker won widespread international acclaim and inaugurated a new
sub-discipline in net art, ‘browser art’, changing the way many people
looked at and understood the internet.

Through Matthew Fuller, I/O/D was also connected to the group Mongrel.  
This group had formed around the artist Graham Harwood who had been
teaching at Artec for a number of years. Besides Fuller and Harwood it
also included Matsuko Yokokij, Richard Pierre Davis and mervin Jarman.  
Applying the well proven culture jamming technique of turning a pejorative
term –'mongrel'– into their own aggressive self-description, this multi-
ethnic group paid particular attention to the construction of gender and
race in cyberspace. Subverting well known software packages such as
Photoshop and ubiquitous internet tools such as the search-engine, Mongrel
showed that these supposedly neutral tools carried their own implicit
value systems. Information technology is not just about 'information'
–meaningful bits of data– but also about the 'formation' of ways of
thinking and social structures. This critical approach to information
tools was dubbed 'social software', a term which has subsequently been
widely adopted, losing its original political edge.  Mongrel continued to
explore the possibilities of politicised technologies, creating software
to enable the digital self-representation of socially marginalised groups,
first with Linker, which then morphed into the mapping project Nine (9).
Matthew Fuller later wrote a seminal essay on MS Word revealing how this
hegemonic word-processing software processes not only words but also the
mind of the writer.

Although neither I/O/D nor Mongrel are based in London any more, their
work is relevant if one wants to understand what is specific about its
media art scene. Their brand of 'social software' stands in refreshing
opposition to other types of media art. When the discussion at leading
international festivals like Ars Electronica was still dominated by old
fashioned artificial intelligence and immersive goggle-wearing
'cyberspace' art, marred by an unquestioned proximity to the military
industrial complex, artists like Mongrel and I/O/D created a socially
aware thread in media art that destroys the
white-boy-genius-in-ivory-tower paradigm. This was widely welcomed as a
breath of fresh air and it created openings for an alternative view on
technology that holds huge potential for the future.

Discourses

All these developments found critical accompaniment from Mute magazine
throughout the second half of the ‘90s. Influenced by international
debates on mailing lists such as Nettime and Syndicate, Mute devoted more
and more editorial attention to the political economy of the networked
information sphere. Very conscious that a growing economic boom was under
way, Mute's focus started to shift from art and technology to a more
politically aware dissection of the 'new economy'. Mute did not itself
ride the new economy wave, but it could not help but register the links
between the more informal or even underground art sector and the bland,
brash, money-spinning world of the dotcoms. When in 1997 Mute, Richard
Barbrook and myself launched the monthly live discussion forum Cybersalon,
many participants found themselves in a mixed economy. Early Cybersalon
discussions revolved around this very issue: many people had one leg in
the new economy and the other one in a largely commodity-free zone of art
and/or community activism. While thousands of newly formed companies tried
to convert 'eyeballs' into revenue streams, many of their employees were
at the same time involved in a high-tech gift economy. The question of
identity – not as an expression of subjectivity but in terms of the
political economy one is inadvertently a part of – was brought to the
foreground.

While mainstream society stared, fixated, at the glitterballs of
breathtaking IPOs, the cohorts of the digital underground began to
understand that it was their labour that fuelled the boom – a point
brought home by Richard Barbrook's and Pit Schultz's 'Digital Artisan
Manifesto.' (6) When the new economy crashed, many suddenly realised that
their dream of working in ‘flat hierarchies’ – and dimly lit Shoreditch
warehouses showered by intelligent drum’n’bass and fogged by marijuana
smoke – had been effectively exploited by middle class Oxbridge types with
the money and connections to set up those companies, sell out, and run
with the money.

Re-orientations

When the new economy had finally collapsed there was no triumphant ‘I told
you so.’ A reassessment was necessary to see which achievements of the
past were worth salvaging from the wreckage. Important decisions were to
be made. The half-commercial-half-free model was no longer applicable.  
Those who worked in surviving businesses were now firmly part of the
commercial world. Artists who had worked themselves into the corporate
sphere found that ‘the corporate blanket is warm.’ (7) The rest had to see
how they could keep going. The search was on for sustainable models.  
Between the years 2000 and 2001 Lisa Haskel set up MAP and started the
tech_2 series of events. Digital Guild set itself up as a new media
training facility. Julian Priest and James Stevens launched Consume, a
proposal for a free network built and maintained by its users. Mute
relaunched itself as a Magazine Plus which included a gradual devolution
of editorial control and network projects such as You Are Here and
OpenMute.

It maybe a coincidence, but at about the time of the crash many started to
take a more serious look at what the industry calls ‘intellectual
property’ and what, from an artist’s personal point of view, has to do
with ownership and control of the dissemination of work, but also of
infrastructures and resources. The ‘90s rip off –of ideas, labour and
hopes for a more equitable communication landscape– could not and should
not go on.

Digital Commons

Throughout the ‘90s free software gained increasing recognition and more
widespread use among computer workers. The programmer and developer
communities understood the value of a licence system whereby code
contributed by each would be shared freely. This was made possible by what
some call ‘the greatest legal hack’ in history, the GNU General Public
Licence (GPL), created by the Free Software Foundation. (8) Programs
published under this licence allow everyone to inspect the source code,
modify it, and redistribute it. The only condition is that the new code is
also published under the GPL and that not only the executable binary files
but also the source code are released. This allowed free software to grow
without the danger of being ‘enclosed’ in a proprietary system.  
Throughout the last decade there has also been a dialogue between coders
and media art practitioners, mostly on an individual level. Media artists
saw the benefits of free software, especially those working on and with
the net, where open standards guarantee a layer of freedom in an
increasingly privatised infrastructure. By the end of the ‘90s it was
recognised that the growing body of work published under the GPL or
similar licences comprised a digital commons, a public sphere of shared
knowledge. The existence of free software, open standards and the public
information infrastructure that we call the internet guarantees access to
tools and digital artworks for everybody and makes it easy to distribute
work without intermediaries.

But the digital commons is under threat from the commercial forces which
have taken over the internet. Under intense lobbying pressure from the
multinationals, governments have introduced increasingly restrictive
intellectual property provisions. Resistance against the corporate
takeover began to appear around the millennium. Conferences such as
Wizards of OS I+II (Berlin 1999, 2001) and Code (Cambridge, 2002)
discussed issues around free software and intellectual property. At the
same time, the open source development and licence model was being applied
to other areas of cultural production. The Creative Commons website is one
of many attempts to create licences for all types of work and so protect
them from enclosure. Writers, graphic artists and musicians use it to
place work in the public domain, protected by a Creative Commons Licence
or similar schemes.

But the digital commons is not just about sharing code and files on the
internet. What unites hackers and media artists is a particular relation
to their work. They are seeking freedom and autonomy in self-defining
their day-to-day activity. They don’t separate work and leisure time. They
are not waiting for legitimisation from any external power. Instead of
financial remuneration they mainly want the recognition of their peers.
Out of this drive for a self-defined relation to work in peer-based
collaborations a string of fascinating projects has emerged.

FREE Networks

In the summer of 2000 Julian Priest and James Stevens wrote a text that
described their ideas for a free network, a network that would be built
and maintained by its users. They suggested the use of wireless network
technology based on the 802.11 family of standards developed by the
Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to jump over the
local loop and create neighborhood networks outside the commercial
provider model. Local networks would wirelessly connect to each other and
thereby create an ever growing free network cloud of data. Inside this
cloud users would enjoy the benefits of a high-bandwidth connection
without having to pay fees to owners of cables such as BT. File-sharing,
gaming, audio- visual media and communications experiments of all kinds
would blossom within the free network. At the same time the network would
be connected at its borders to the worldwide internet. Those in posession
of a broadband connection would share it with other users for the mutual
benefit of all. Priest/Stevens gave their idea of a network co-operative
the suggestive name, Consume (10). Without wasting any time Consume
immediately started to build components of the proposed network and
organise workshops, the Consume Clinics, where people interested in the
‘freenetwork’ idea would meet, discuss ways of developing the network, or
actually build the hardware needed to process wireless internet traffic –
antennas, routers and access points.

Consume got a phenomenal response from the press. While media accounts of
the rise of wireless internet had been completely dominated by pieces on
the practice of ‘war-driving’ – that is, the siphoning off of bandwidth
from unprotected (and often corporate) wireless networks for personal use
– Consume managed to transform that perception. From The Guardian to the
BBC to The Wall Street Journal major media outlets reported the
irresistable growth of wireless community networks in London, New York
City and even Seattle. This in turn mobilised many more people to get
involved with the growing movement. Consume built a database with a
visualisation tool, the Consume NodeDB (node data base)  where owners of
wireless networks could register their nodes with their exact geographical
location and access details. From a few nodes in the year 2000, this
database has grown to more than 3000 entries in 2003.

The Consume idea had legs and the notion of the freenetwork was picked up
by many people and carried into different directions. Meanwhile, Consume
refused to become a legal entity for the official representation of
community networks. They insisted that only decentralised uptake of the
idea and self-organised network development could guarantee that it
remained uncompromised by bureaucratisation or commercialisation. An
official Consume organisation could become a target for legal action or
takeover attempts. A decentralised network built on consensus between many
independent owners of small network fragments was the favoured model. The
network should grow in the same way that a tune is – collectively –
invented and developed in musical free improvisation.

Localisations

Consume was very successful as a catalyst for ideas and in helping
interested people to find each other. Since December 2000 a wireless free
network called free2air.org had existed in Bethnal Green, East London.
(11)  Run by Adam Burns, a.k.a. vortex, free2air had been launched without
knowledge of the existence of Consume but was based on a similar set of
ideas. Free2air has the longest running open and freely accessible
wireless node in London and possibly Europe.

Meanwhile, down the road in Brick Lane, in 2001 Mute Magazine started You
Are Here (YAH), a wireless project inspired by Consume but taking the idea
further into the realm of local networking. YAH wanted to use the wireless
community networks to the benefit of their immediate area. In order to be
able to connect to a node one needs to be physically close to it.  There
was an assumption that users of wireless nodes, in this case in East
London, would also live and work in proximity to each other and possibly
had other things to share as well as bandwidth. The YAH website, based on
a Wiki – a web-based system for collaborative publishing – would enable
people to put themselves on the (virtual) map and start a local barter
economy of goods, skills and resources. (12)

Back in Bethnal Green, audio-visual content creators and net artists
ambientTV.NET had been aware of the possibilities of wireless technology
for a while. When they moved into the neighbourhood of free2air their
‘interest’ turned into activity. Two workshops at ambientTV.NET’s studio
are well remembered because they brought many free networkers together –
You Are Here, free2air and Consume – but also other individuals who
officially belonged to neither of these groups but worked with them on a
project basis. At these workshops some of the main components were created
that would soon connect ambientTV.NET with free2air and a number of other
studios who were (and still are) housed in the same building. This
network, the nucleus of an East End Net, is one of the most active
wireless communities so far and has provided the infrastructure for media
art experiments such as ambientTV.NET’s series of ‘Telejams’ and Kaffe
Matthews’ project ‘Radio Cycle’, part of the Interference public art
program in summer 2003.

Self-Institutions

Shortly after the workshops at ambientTV.NET another Consume/You Are Here
workshop happened at Limehouse Town Hall. This time a small crew, among
them some of the free network diehards such as Alexei Blinow (Raylab) and
Ian Morrison (darq.net), focused on building the local network structure
at LTH. Earlier, with the help of Consume, the Twenteenthcentury webserver
had been set up at LTH, enabling the groups that worked there not only to
publish their content on the net but also to internally organise
themselves more efficiently. With the addition of the wireless node, LTH
became a much more valuable resource for the media art community. Soon it
became venue of choice for a number of open Consume Clinics. LTH also
hosts a weekly Unix workshop and is the virtual home of the University of
Openness. (13)

The free network movement emphasised skills transfer and open workshops
were a prefered way to further this goal. The University of Openness was
intially started as an attempt to build a wireless node factory at the
LTH. It was recognised that not everyone who wanted to participate in the
free network movement had the skills to make a wireless access point and
router. The UofO would assemble redundant computers and turn them into
free network nodes. Once a method was established this task could be
carried out by less skilled apprentices. Many wireless network nodes would
be created for little or no money and they would do good service bouncing
free bandwidth over the rooftops of East London.

As a first step a unix workshop was started. Almost every week for the
last two years, Ian Morrison has run a free course teaching people how to
use free versions of the unix operating system, how to install software,
how to run an IRC channel and generally how to find their way around in
the complex world of server administration. At some point during the early
days of the UofO the idea of a ‘node factory’ was silently dropped and the
notion of a ‘free university’ with different faculties became more
important.  Everyone can open a new faculty, find collaborators and
document research on the UofO Wiki.

The UofO has a department for collaborative research, an education
department and the faculty of cartography. The Cartographic Congress at
LTH was organised under the auspices of the UofO in May and June 2003.  
The UofO emphasises the notion of the self- or extra-institution, an
institution that is not built on bricks and mortar, money, or the
rationale of state funders. Instead it institutes itself out of the
collective social imagination of its constituency. (14) The UofO and its
sister universities, the Copenhagen Free University and the Université
Tangente in Paris, present a possible alternative to the crisis of the
higher education system with its lack of imagination, lack of open-ended
inter-disciplinary research, and ever-increasing tuition fees.

Learning

The Tech_2 series of events organised by MAP/Lisa Haskel ‘was much
inspired by workshops/gatherings such as hybrid workspace, Makrolab and
the Acoustic Space labs that offer an opportunity for real work to happen
in a communal environment and with some public interface.’ (15)  Tech_2
took this approach to three cities outside of London, Bristol, Lancaster
and Leeds, creating new links between the capital and small regional
culture centres. Topics of the Tech_2 workshops ranged from recycling of
redundant hardware to sustainable energy. Digital Guild is a non-profit
organisation committed to the creative application of digital technology.
It helps young people of 20-years and older who have no previous computer
skills to get an education in new media design. Located in Toynbee Hall,
Tower Hamlets, it reaches out to people who would not otherwise consider
themselves fit to enter the sphere new media. Post- training job placement
helps to ensure that newly gained skills are applied in a real-life
context.

Urban Generations

The importance of Backspace and LTH in the development of media art in
London only highlights the fact that there is a paucity of places where
work can be shown or people come together in an informal way to discuss
projects, spontaneously propose and develop workshops or even a series of
events. The fast evolving digital scene needs such spaces. The real estate
situation in London makes it very hard to get them. It is widely
recognised (not just) among media artists that space is a major problem
and that this is connected to the problematic area of urban regeneration.

Many artists are now directly or indirectly involved in urban
regeneration.  It has become a source of income for less market-oriented
artists. At the same time, art is being instrumentalised in gentrification
projects. Often culture is the catalyst for the displacement of local
people – including artists themselves. Ironically, the area just south of
the river Thames where Backspace was located became too expensive for
artists when the transformation of an old power station into Tate Modern
triggered a property boom. It would be a bit strong to state that Tate
Modern killed Backspace, but the opening of this one big institution and
the closing down of the other very small one are not entirely unrelated
events. Planting large, state-funded art institutions in derelict areas
has become a recognized neo-Keynesian technique of ‘renewal’. It is hardly
ever the local art scene or other local communities, apart from the few
who can afford to shop or work in the new ‘cultural’ / tourist quarters,
who benefit from these developments. (16)

Conclusions

The London media art scene has created something that is quite unique.  
Instead of looking at the big institutions, vying for their attention, or
repeating the phase of ‘institutional critique’ that the fine arts scene
went through in the late ‘80s - early ‘90s, the focus here has been on
developing sustainable models of collaboration and exchange in a
self-defined context.  The media art practices that have emerged from this
context tend to avoid the spectacle, are politically and socially aware
and do not fetishise technology. By avoiding the high profile, glamour and
‘newness’ of new media, the London scene’s activities have somehow
remained below the waterline, only occasionally surfacing in any
mainstream context. However, it should be mentioned that media artists
from London have been highly successful internationally and that the ideas
and methods developed here have reverberated across Europe and overseas.

The level of funding on offer has been comparatively low, with the healthy
side effect that people fight over the viability of ideas rather than the
availability of big money. Open engagement was the prime concern,
attracting people who would join the effort to create new structures
outside the dominant state-corporate model. This does not mean to say that
funding is not welcome or that economies of all sizes do not play an
important role. As of now, media artists are seeking out an even more
active role for their work, (self)instituting new threads in the social
fabric.  Media artists need not play the part of crash-test dummies for
the new media industries, nor act as underpaid social workers in urban
regeneration schemes.

What is required from funders is a more sophisticated response to the
complex social and economic ecologies that have emerged. For a start, we
can ask how existing initiatives, self-institutions and shifting networks
of collaboration can be strengthened without destroying the core values
which act as the glue holding it all together. While these developments
have sometimes seemed slow, they have been steady. How can we maintain
their lightness and openess while making them more robust? How can the
fledgling alternatives discussed here gain wider significance and impact?
How can these experiments not only in media technology but more
importantly in social relations, inter-relationships and working methods
be carried into the future?

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ ++++++++++++

1 Simon Pope, email to the author, 06/10/03.

2 Simon Pope, ‘Art Is Everything That Business Is Not’, in Ways of 
Working: Placing Artists In Business Contexts, CD ROM, Arts Council of 
England Collaborative Arts unit, 2002.

3 Eric Raymond, ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’, First Monday, 1998. 
http://www.Firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_3/raymond/

4 Lisa Haskel, email to the author, 07/19/03.

5 I/O/D, ‘This is London’, in The Futile Style of London, 
1998.http://www.backspace.org/iod/texts.html

6 Richard Barbrook and Pit Schultz, ‘Digital Artisan Manifesto’, 1997. 
http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/theory-digitalartisansmanifesto-print.html

7 Simon Pope, quoting the artist group Bank, ACE, above quote (2).

8 Free Software Foundation.http://www.fsf.org/

9 Creative Commons. http://www.creativecommons.org/

10 At that time Priest and Stevens were not aware that ‘Konsum’ was the 
name of the leading shoppers co-operative and grocery chain in Germany 
and Austria.

11 free2air. http://www.free2air.org

12 You Are Here. http://youarehere.metamute.com/

13 University of Openness. http://twenteenthcentury.com/uo/

14 The term self-institution refers to the writings of Cornelius Castoriadis. 
In a piece describing his own development called The Only Way To Find 
Out If You Can Swim Is To Get Into The Water’ he talks of self-institution 
as a more radical position than ‘self-management’ vis-a-vis the notion of an 
‘autonomous society’. The later he describes as: ‘The permanent and 
explict self-institution of society; that is to say, a state in which the 
collectivity knows that its institutions are its own creation and has become 
capable of regarding them as such, of taking them up again and 
transforming them. If one accepts this idea, it defines a unity of the 
revolutionary project’.
In another essay, ‘Done And To Be Done’, he says, ‘I have defined the 
object of politics as follows: Create the institutions which, by being 
internalized by individuals, most facilitate their accession to their individual 
autonomy and their effective participation in all forms of explicit power 
existing in society.’ (This footnote is compiled from an email from John 
Barker).

15 From MAP self-description.

16 The London Particular, a self-defined ‘counter-regeneration agency’ 
have conducted extensive research into gentrification and regeneration in 
Hackney and Tower Hamlets. This engagement with the processes re-
shaping the social and physical landscape of London’s East End has 
found a number of expressions — videos, gallery installations, maps and 
texts. The London Particular will be showing work at The DMZ festival.



 



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