[-empyre-] Week Four - Design

Julian Oliver julian at julianoliver.com
Tue Jun 22 21:21:38 EST 2010

..on Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 01:56:01PM +1000, Michael Dieter wrote:
> > Of course I’m aware that in-work academic labourers are paid by their
> > institutions and many have a lot to benefit from making their research
> > and publications available on a free and open basis. And, yes, ‘for
> > other kinds of writers, the idea of free culture may simply result in
> > more alienated labour’, as Emmett Stinson quite rightly points out.
> > However, at the same time, and as others have suggested, the vast
> > majority of (non-academic, non-affiliated) authors, artists and
> > musicians actually benefit very little from the current copyright
> > economy, too. A few top stars may earn a lot, but most people don’t. An
> > Author’s Licensing and Collecting Society Study from 2007 suggested that
> > the ‘typical earnings of a British professional writer aged 25-34 are
> > only £5,000 per annum’. In his recent book, Nice Work If You Can Get It,
> > Andrew Ross even goes so far as to argue that 'in the court of public
> > opinion, corporate IP warriors can always win points by broadcasting the
> > claim that they are defending the labor rights of vulnerable artists.
> > Yet the historical record and the experience of working artists today
> > confirm that the struggling proprietary author has always been more of a
> > convenient fiction for publishers to exploit than a consistent
> > beneficiary of copyright rewards. Culture-industry executives are able
> > to masquerade as the last line of protection for artists, when in fact
> > they are systematically stripping them of their copyrights.' If so, then
> > it might not be just academic labourers who have things to gain from
> > experimenting with different kinds of economies and ‘alternate
> > modernities’.
> With this concluding point, however, I also wonder what 'might be gained'
> from those unsupported artists and authors openly contributing to free
> culture. There is a strong argument to make that vying for 'exposure' or
> 'hype' only further fuels a mode of communicative capitalism that
> maintains the secondary parasited role of knowledge or creative labor in
> deeply problematic ways (especially combined with the still dominant UGC
> logic of 'social media' platforms). This is why, for me, it's not about
> moving back to the existing IP regimes if you're critical of the
> 'theoretically correct' support of free culture. Rather, it's simply
> willing to ask how can art and cultural works might exist in network
> societies outside of patronage, care-giving or charity, AND residual
> systems of property.

I thought I'd chime in here on the matter of 'sustainability' and Free Culture
contribution, from an individual practitioner's perspective.

A great deal of artists (and the cultures to which they contribute) are not just
able to survive working in the spirit of Free Culture, rather, they could not
easily survive without it at all. It often becomes difficult to chart the course
of renumeration however when you look for transactions in the traditional
places, like an art dealer mediating an exchange of property between artist and
art buyer, for example. 

Behind all the books on New Media and so-called Digital Arts, masters programs,
festivals like Ars Electronica, ISEA, JMAF - large and expensive, publically and
privately funded events attended by many thousands of people - is a strong
dependence on free software and culture.  Where others see a technological work
of art, many makers will see free software projects comprising Processing, Open
Frameworks, PD or whole operating systems themselves, like embedded GNU/Linux.
Millions of lines of legally mutable, redistributable code.

Just as with the Sciences, there simply would not be a media art world nearly as
large and interesting if artists could only work with off-the-shelf 'industry
standardised' tools and SDKs. It's this same large and bustling scene (sure, a
'Culture Industry') that ultimately supports a great number of artists (free
culture contributors or not), attracting funding and thus feeding independent
project development. The dependency on free culture in the media-arts runs deep,
so much so that now attention is being directed to this fact, like whole funding
charters for Free Culture focused art projects and exhibitions, week long
symposiums on Free Software in the media arts, open standards strategies for
archiving 'digital art', etc. There is no 'New Media' without free culture.

On an independent level - at the risk of turning to strategy - I myself am very
reliant on the community that builds around the code of my projects in order to
increase opportunities for income. This would not happen if the code were not
'free' for use: Universities sometimes take up a code-base of mine and build a
course around it, with me as the 'expert' or simply that a work of mine is
ported to other platforms and thus distributed more widely, drawing attention
back 'up the river' to my efforts. Forums, mailing lists, social networks might
build a thread around my contributions, attracting further opportunities like
talks, lecture series', collaborations, offers of development funding, the
results of which may benefit another organisation's existing projects. It's such
'indirect renumeration' that has sustained me for the last 10 years - with no
day job, rich parents or institutional affiliation and there are many like me.

Sometimes people simply use the code I've written in their projects (despite it
being released under a pro-copy Copyright license) but it's surprising how
little this happens in general. Instead, if I was less public about my code I'd
be in greater risk of my initial contribution being too far 'under the radar' to
protect me from blatant violations of the license under which I release my work.
Artists are often very concerned with their reputation as originators and so
will rarely steal something that is publically freely available. Moreso, working
directly with the author of a given code-base is often far cheaper than hiring a
bunch of people to work out how it works and where it can be taken.

In short, the Media Arts is not supported by a cultural economy transacting
around objects, but ideas and their implementations. The money that sustains
this scene tends toward a service-based economy rather than the product-driven
economy typical to traditional arts. In any case, it's still very much a Culture
Industry, in the sense Adorno intended, and as such comes with inherent
vulnerabilities and maldistributions.


Julian Oliver
home: New Zealand
based: Berlin, Germany 
currently: Berlin, Germany
about: http://julianoliver.com

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