I’ve got a whole bunch of stuff in my head at the moment about power laws, emergent systems, network architectures, etc – partly from the google/blogger merge, partly from Clay’s writing, and partly because of where I work.
But the thing I need to write about is something else that has been gnawing away at me for a couple of years. Its to do with the sector that I used to work in – digital art – but the parallels seem more and more relevant to all these current issues. And my usual tactic in this instance is to take an oblique look at the problem, and see if I can creep up on it from there. Also, the last thing we need is another random blog posting about power laws or Bloogle. So here goes.
I’m going to Liverpool on thursday for the launch of the new FACT centre. Its a very ambitious Lottery-funded building project that is trying to create a new type of space for a mixed economy of media arts, from cinema to installation and web art. So why is that particularly ineresting? There’s been a glut of Lottery funded building projects in the last decade, some successful, some not. This one’s been in the pipeline for a while now, so why is it different? Well, the answer is to do with the organisation behind it, their philosophies, and whether they can successfully navigate the substantial shift in scale that the building represents.
FACT, the Foundation for Creative Arts and Technology, have been one of the leading lights in commissioning digital arts for over 10 years now. They’ve previously operated out of a small warren of offices in Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, with a broad portfolio of activities that have grown quite organically out of their core interests in supporting media art. These include the regular Video Positive festival, the ISEA 98 conference, The MITES service for galleries wanting to show media art, and a fantastic collaboration programme within the local community. The important thing is, their overheads have been (I assume) pretty managable. Their offices were pretty basic and staff broadly aligned to specific projects, so they could expand or contract depending on the size of their commitments. They’ve had some hits and misses, like any arts organisation, but have been around for over 10 years now, so must be doing something right.
All this is going to change with the FACT Centre. In one fell swoop, they’ve got to understand how to manage a complex and expensive building, and will have related staff costs, utilities, etc, before they can begin spending on artistic programmes. I’ve spoken to Clive Gillman, who has been heavily involved in this project since the beginning, many times in the last few years, and its been interesting to see the organisation prepare for the realities of running a building, and some of the hard compromises they’ve had to make.
What we have here is a challenge of scale, and one that has come out of a historical practise in an emergent sector. If we look at the way in which emergent media practises have been adopted into the cultural mainstream, scale, both architectural and in terms of audience, has been a crucial factor. There is a repeating pattern of infrastructures that support emerging practises, and similar ideaological crisis points between the practitioners and the infrastructures themselves. To be very crude, we could put it like this:
1st stage: Establishing a community of practitioners
This is when a new practise emerges, and early practitioners look to seek each other out and establish shared vocabularies. Primary needs are access to production facilities, which are often expensive and hard to obtain, and a peer network to share ideas about political, cultural and technical issues. Audiences for the products of this community is usually limited to the community itself, with a focus on innovation rather than high-quality presentation. Good examples of historical infrastructures at this level include the many photography resources that developed in the 1970’s and 80’s, such as Impressions in York or the now-defunct Camerawork in London. For net art, Rhizome has played an essential infrastructural role, as did Backspace in London.
2nd stage: Establishing modes of display and developing audiences
After a production community has reached a critical mass, quality of presentation becomes a critical factor in establishing the value of cultural products. This is for a couple of reasons, including the need to address the criteria for public funding and the maturing vocabulary of the emergent practise itself. 1st stage infrastructures often mutate to play a supporting role in this stage, developing more sophisticated physical or virtual spaces to showcase cultural products, and extending the network to peers on a national or global scale. Successful infrastructural organisations have an increasing effect on the emergent practise itself, by creating larger-scale opportunities that amplify certain elements of the practise whilst marginalising others. This is usually accompanied by the first crisis of identity amongst practitioners, with splits emerging between those who see this as ‘selling out’ and those who benefit from the opportunities. Most of the network of UK photography organisations went through this mutation in the 70’s and 80’s. Some managed to retain their links with practitioners, whilst others more overtly took the role of medium-sized galleries. Most significantly, the audience for these spaces grows outside of the practitioner networks, attracting clued-up members of the wider artistic community.
3rd Stage: Development of a ‘canon’ and historicisation of practises
The emergent practise is now attracting a lot of interest from mainstream cultural infrastructures, including the media and museums. This accelerates the profile of the practitioners who successfully adapted with the mutating infrastructural organisations, and as a result appear as part of an early ‘canon’. This can be a problem, as the scale of opportunities increases rapidly, putting a strain on practitioners who don’t want to say no to the exposure, but can easily overcommit themselves and see the work suffer as a result. The primary needs in this stage come from the ‘early adopter’ agents from the mainstream, who demand a level of quality and uniformity of practise that has not typically been there in the early stages. There is also a need to adapt the practise to the needs of their infrastructures, for example, a museum or a newspaper. Again, practitioners whose work can adapt to these needs prosper, whereas those who cannot, or choose not to because of their allegiance to the more political and egalitarian aims of the early stages of the emergent practise, find themselves increasingly marginalised. Audiences are now very significant, and the mainstream exposure of the practise is no longer seen as such a novelty. A good example of this stage is the survey show, exemplified in digital art by the confluence of major shows at SFMOMA and the Whitney in 2001. Both these shows are typical in that they try to locate an emergent practise within a broader cultural milieu, attempting to trace historical precedents and parallels with commercial practises.
4th Stage: Assimilation
By now, successful practitioners have been able to create international careers, and are regularly featured in mainstream shows along with more traditional practitioners, or are offered one-person shows in private galleries. This introduces a commercial audience for the work, and ways to edition or otherwise commoditize the practise are developed. The practise is now almost unrecognisable from its early, socialized forms, with any ambiguity about authorship, presentation orthodoxies and historical relationships resolved as part of its assimilation into the mainstream. Interestingly, there are virtually no examples of ’emergent’ infrastructural organisations who can adapt to play a role at this level. Its a kind of glass ceiling – the shift in scale to meet the needs of audiences rather than communities is so huge that organisations face a crisis of identity, and many don’t survive. Those that do normally shift their focus to a related emerging practise that is at stage 1, 2 or 3, where they can more easily identify a role. This happened to most of the photography organisations in the UK, as emerging practises and funding streams for digital multimedia shifted support from ‘traditional’ chemical photography to these new forms.
The challenge for FACT
In creating their new centre, FACT are trying to break this cycle. Rather than seeing emerging practises mutate to fulfill the needs of mainstream spaces, they are creating a bespoke centre that is at least partly based on the needs of emerging practises. Its intended to be a flexible, dynamic, space; in a way a materialisation of the philosophy of the organisation over the past decade. But will they succeed?
I don’t know. That there are precious few precedents is a worry, although there are a few similar projects that are in development. They’ll need peers, both for the network externalities this brings (sharing investment in programming, franchising exhibitions, etc) and for the kind of competition that will develop audience interest in this sector. The trouble is, the cost of entry to market at this scale is so huge that there are unlikely to be many other organisations able to make the same step up, especially in a Lottery funding climate that is much harsher than when FACT got their funding. If they see their immediate peers as organisations out of their sector (the Tate, Whitechapel, etc), then the bespoke conditions of their space will not be exploited, as they’ll have to make concessions in their frachised programming to the facilities available in standard ‘white cube’ spaces. MITES is a partly successful attempt to deal with this, but is still geared towards adapting ‘white cubes’, not replicating the far more dynamic spaces that the FACT centre has.
But the biggest problem could be the building itself. All cultural centres of this scale subsidise their programming activity with the support services that mass audiences expect – cafes, bookshops, etc. FACT have addressed this head-on, with 2 cinema spaces that will show art-house programmes that are related to the other emergent work exhibited. But this could easily become the tail that wags the dog, as audiences might identify the FACT centre as a great cinema with some funky exhibition spaces attached.
Of course, this could be their overt intention. There is nothing wrong with this at all, but it would represent a significant shift away from the programming philosophies that have underpinned their work for over 10 years, and would prove my theory that no organisation involved in emergent networks of practitioners can manage the shift in scale from supporting communities to supporting audiences. This is where the relationship to power laws and the Google/Blogger relationship comes in, and I’ll get around to exploring this in part 2. In the meantime, I’m off to Liverpool on Thursday, and will let you know what I think when I get back.