Eric Kluitenberg on Sun, 22 May 2011 15:54:14 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> ISEA 2011 fees

dear nettimers,

I've been tempted to enter this discussion, then thought too many people already have said everything, but I see that the discussion has continued traction. I would like to try and weigh in here from a more practical - organiser - perspective, and reflect on issues of scale and economics of an event like ISEA. This is an issue that has occupied me for quite some time now, and I haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory solution.

First about ISEA itself. I was involved in the first two editions of ISEA (1988 / 1990), the first while still a student and working for a university students cultural centre where I organised a week long electronic arts festival in conjunction with ISEA, and then in 1990 in the organisation committee of SISEA. As I understood at the time how Wim van der Plas, the founder of ISEA understood ISEA, he saw it as an international platform to connect the disparate practices of electronic art as an emerging field of cross-disciplinary cultural and artistic practice. I think it served that purpose to some degree.

There was not much more of an 'ideology' involved, it was a rather pragmatic intervention. For my own part I felt deeply dissatisfied by the lack of critical engagement with socio/political realities, but also a lack of critical approach to the aesthetics of this emerging field and recognised that ISEA was not the right structure to engage these issues and therefore looked for them elsewhere.

Over the years I've been involved in many larger scale public events, festivals, conferences that dealt with media culture, media arts, and information politics. In my experience it has become increasingly difficult to find support for these larger scale events. In part because of macro-political and economic shifts, various so-called 'crises', partly because the emerging field became an established field, diversified and lost its novelty (at the very least for funders and the wider audience). 

Thirdly, the shift from electronic arts / media arts / new media culture, towards the more corporate inclined 'creative industries'-meme has also meant a significant shift of funding priorities and opportunities. With the invention of the creative industries meme funding agencies, local and national governments were suddenly presented with a clear trajectory to invest in that yielded seemingly obvious economic benefits, job creation opportunities, and prospects for technological innovation, without the 'noise' associated with rather opaque 'electronic arts' events, or worse still the unruly aesthetics and politics of tactical media.

The bottom-line, electronic arts would henceforth be redirected back to traditional arts and culture funding, and theses funding resources are drying up exponentially under pressure of austerity measures. In The Netherlands more than half of the public funding for living arts practices will be cut in the next two to three years, the UK just had its shake out, not to mention what is going in the Mediterranean area.


Given the above I don't think that events on the scale of ISEA or the infamous Next 5 Minutes festivals (Brian Holmes referenced it earlier) are still feasible today. It is one (not the only) reason why the 2003 Next 5 Minutes 4 festival was the last one. The essence of what Lanfranco stated earlier is that in the absence of any decent public funding for this event the fees are the only way he can raise the budget required to stage the event. Yes he can look at individual cases, but without that backbone revenue the thing won't happen.

I would agree with others who have suggested that in these circumstances it is necessary to look at alternative formats for convening relevant events, creating meeting points and opportunities for exchange. I have been actively looking into that question, not just in theory, but very much in practice. One such an attempt was the ElectroSmog Festival held in March 2010, a festival conducted entirely in the remote with partners from a variety of places around the world, with multiple interconnected physical hubs (public audience spaces) and an extensive on-line dimension. That festival format worked technically quite well but failed miserably on the social level - it did not bring the encounter about that festivals such as Transmediale, Future Everything and ISEA do.
For an in-depth reflection on this outcome see:

So, a distributed on-line gathering just doesn't seem to work. Anybody who can prove me wrong on this one, please go ahead and do it. I would gladly be disproved, but I fear that what we found at ESmog is sadly what one can expect from any of these larger scale on-line gatherings, a lack of 'connection'.

Therefore my intermediate conclusion is that the issue of scale must be addressed much more critically. Part of the vibrancy of the early electronic arts / new media culture scene was obviously the fact that the number of people and organisations involved was much smaller, connections were more tightly knit, and within these smaller scale settings it was easier to develop in-depth collaboration.

There should be no nostalgia, trying to recoup this initial phase of an emerging field of cultural practice. But it would make sense to look more closely at ways of working on smaller scales, creating more in-depth relationships and ways of working together, and at the same time being more able to adapt to the kind of material and economic realities we are facing now as cultural practitioners.

There is a threat in this of further marginalisation, but there is I think also an opportunity for developing alternative ways of working and acting that can scale up through networking such individual and more localised initiatives.

The thing that has dramatically changed since the inception of ISEA (1988 / 1990) is obviously the radical proliferation of networking technologies and our ability to put these infrastructures to good use. So perhaps, if a completely distributed setting does not work (ESmog), but also large scale meetings of the ISEA type threaten to collapse under their own weight and become mechanisms of exclusion / segregation, then perhaps we should look more closely at structures of horizontally networked smaller scale and more localised events, gatherings, and meetings as a way of bringing the field as a whole forward.

For myself, my next endeavour is a small scale one day public seminar on the legacies of tactical media (for about 150 attendance), where we'll focus in more closely on the fall-out of the wikileaks saga and the turmoil in the Maghreb and Middle East, on September 30 in De Balie in Amsterdam. If anyone wants to come along to that one, please be welcome. We're organising this virtually without any budget, striking individual deals with everyone and with audience fees in the range of 10 euro for a full ticket and 5 for students and so on.

In any case I don't see the point anymore for creating yet another mega-event, and rather focus my energies on what I think is really important.


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