This is the thirteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!
At the 2008 Elevate Festival, Ronaldo Lemos, Project Lead of the Creative Commons Brazil, talked about the “commons of the mind”. He said that the internet had created a plurality of business models for media distribution – iTunes, BandCamp, Gumroad, Amazon, eBay and YouTube to name half a dozen. The question is whether this is a good thing for creative responders or not. Daniel Erlacher proposes that, compared to the corporate publishing model of the last century, today’s plurality makes distribution much more complicated for artists.
Those complications can also bring with them a certain freedom. Ursula Rucker has experience of both worlds: she released three albums on a traditional record label, but has released her last two albums herself as digital only downloads. “It may be harder because you don’t have someone taking care of you,” she says of the record industry, “but they were never taking care of you in the first place.” Antonino laughs a knowing laugh. “Now there’s a freedom,” Ursula adds. “You do it yourself; you’re not on a leash.” She smiles a wry smile. “At the same time, though, you do have to figure out how you’re going to do it.”
Another possible benefit of the collapse of old models of media distribution since the rise of the internet is that artists are allowed to fail a lot more now, without editors or publishers or producers peering over their shoulder. “I’m independent,” Deanna Rodger says. “I write my stuff, I put it out, I perform where I can.” She argues that, in this new media world of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, the artist has more control. “You don’t have to tick any boxes, you don’t have to jump through hoops,” she says. “You’re also generating your own network and you’re getting instant feedback, which is only going to make you a better artist because you’re listening to the people who are listening to you.”
“New media is not a utopia of independence or creativity,” Antonino says. “You have to have a vision,” he adds. “That’s been there since Picasso painted Guernica. Work that’s timeless and timely has vision.” For him, social media are just the tools that we happen to have for creative-response today, but tools are the means, not the ends. “The ends is this.” He breaks the fourth wall of the stage and seems to connect with each one of us in the audience. “What we’re doing here is social media.”
Everything for Antonino is about connecting with people, that’s his creative-response. The main purpose of his film, Let Fury Have the Hour, which took seven years to produce, was and is to connect with artists, collaborators and human beings. “These are just tools so I can be here with you today,” he says. “I would never have thought, as a fourteen year old kid in Philadelphia, I’d be sitting in Graz talking about this work – it’s an amazing privilege and honour.” We should remember, Antonino says, that clicking Like on Facebook is no substitute for being in the room, connecting with each other. “Real participation demands that we’re here, present, together.” Antonino reaches out to Ksenia and Daniel either side of him: “Like this.”
Deanna agrees, but takes a more global view. “Not everyone can afford to go to a show, or afford to come to Austria,” she says. She is keen not to downplay the significance of minute social media interactions either. “It might only be a re-tweet,” she says, “but that can be the start of something.” For Deanna, creative-response is built up slowly. A little burst of creativity, a tweet, might take only a few seconds, but the satisfaction of getting that tweet favourited by friends or re-tweeted by strangers might lead the nascent artist to ask the question: That only took me five seconds; what if I spent a day on it? From these modest beginnings, the artist slowly develops a vision and a voice. The virtue of this start-small method is that, as Deanna says, “There’s no excuse for not doing it because it is so simple and then you build on it.”
And that is exactly how I got started as a writer. Since I was about eighteen, I’d said I was going to be a writer – sometimes I even boasted that I was going to be a writer who turned the world upside-down with my words. But that’s all it was: words. Until, one day, I realised that, if I wanted to become any kind of a writer, I would need to stop talking and start writing. So I started with the smallest possible story: fifty words long. It’s so short that I might as well reprint it here:
The car pulled a parabola into position in front of endless low roofed warehouses. The steam from the looming cooling towers drifted across the Sun. The violins on the stereo screeched to a close and the chill of the air froze. In ten minutes he would be in the interview.
I think the world just about managed to keep itself on its axis, but that’s not the point. My plan was to write a new story every day, each day adding five words to the word count. Over the course of the next six weeks, I wrote another forty-one stories, ending up with one that was two hundred and sixty words long. It might not sound like a lot, but it was a start. Within a month of finishing that two hundred and sixty word story, I began writing my first full length novel. Within two years, I had finished that novel and published my first book of travel writing. I was a writer.
Daniel Erlacher suggests that the music industry has changed as a result of the growth of the internet, citing the fact that artists now make more money from their gigs than from their records. “It’s always been that way for me,” Ursula replies without hesitation. Chris Hessle, the electronic musician IZC, counters the popular denigration of what he calls “the old vinyl economy”. One accusation is that the music business simply doesn’t have the money any more. “There’s not less money,” he says, “but the money’s going somewhere.”
For Chris, it’s quite obvious where that money is going: Apple, Spotify, Amazon and the other major online distributors. Apple is the most valuable company in the world; they don’t seem to be too bothered that there’s “less money” in the music business. “There’s less money, but it’s only in our perception,” Chris argues. He runs a small traditional record label himself and, on his visits to the pressing factories, sees that “the money stays within the scene and creates jobs for people who are within the scene”. Apple’s profits from iTunes, in contrast, fund a technology company.
On this analysis, it’s hard to argue that today’s system of the financial control of artists is any more free than last century’s. Nafeez Ahmed makes this exact point. “We haven’t got away from centralised control,” he says. “We’re still beholden to these opaque systems of rights and ownership. You upload to Facebook, but how much do you actually own and how many rights are you giving away?”
You’ll be glad to hear, dear reader, that I’ve taken the trouble to answer this rhetorical question. You’ll be further glad when I tell you that you retain the intellectual property rights to any videos, music, poetry or photographs that you upload to Facebook. However, the second you post something on Facebook, you grant them a licence to do whatever they like with it, including using it for commercial purposes if they so desire. No wonder Nafeez is asking, “How can we move beyond being shackled by technologies still very much controlled by big corporations which have their own interests?”
Antonino reminds us that the construction of the internet was publicly funded, by the military and educational institutions. He laments the fact that the internet could have seen the democratisation of technology, as well as art. But, according to Antonino, Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was “one of the great con tricks we pulled in the United States” and helped concentrate ownership of the media into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. “After the economic collapse in 2008,” Antonino adds, “I thought there was a great opportunity for us to think about how society in general was organised, but then everything started getting funnelled back into this hegemony.” For Antonino, at the moment, the primary use of the internet seems to be “to promote more consumption and not more participation”.
Deanna takes us back to the fundamental question of distribution. “As an artist,” she says, “I want to make [my work] available to as many people as possible. As those are the tools I have at the moment, I think those are the tools I should use.” For her, it’s irrelevant whether or not she hates Facebook (she thinks she does), because she can use these tools to come together with others. “It’s not about how much money I can get from it,” she says. “It’s about how much change I can try to inspire. If that’s using Facebook because that’s where I know a hundred people will look at it, then that’s what I’m going to use.” She even challenges Facebook to use her work: “If they take it, then I’m going to write a new poem. Have that one, because I’m going to write a better one.”
Daniel Erlacher has more fundamental problem with social media. “I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says to Deanna. “I can’t follow you and I don’t want to; you exclude me.” When we laugh at his bluntness, he quickly adds, “Sorry, not literally – it’s a big dilemma.” Daniel doesn’t want to participate in this exclusionary social media at all, but when artists use Facebook or Google to promote their work, they become adverts for Facebook or Google. “Every click is an active invitation for other people to find you there,” he says.
Deanna concedes that it is important for artists to become more aware about social media and their channels of distribution, but she’s frustrated with how difficult that is becoming. All she wants is to write and perform, without worrying about whether or not Google owns a licence to all her YouTube videos. “What am I going to do? How am I going to be more aware?” she asks, getting more and more agitated. “How am I going to learn programming?” She hesitates. “I’m going to google it – jokes!” She laughs, we laugh, Ursula touches Deanna’s sleeve in solidarity.
There is, of course, a mid-way between most people’s total acceptance and Daniel’s total rejection of corporate social media. “We should use these mainstream channels and we should show our face if we are not afraid,” Ksenia Ermoshina says, but she also urges us to create “Temporary Autonomous Zones”, outside the internet, where we can come together in physical space.
“It’s up to you,” Ursula says. “Are you able to balance using this vehicle but not becoming it?” Chris agrees, saying, “I think that it’s perfectly fine to use all these corporate structures, but I’m a bit scared to be depending on them.” He sympathises with artists like Deanna who just want to create. “These days, when you sell your music via iTunes, for instance, it’s not so easy to change your channels of distribution,” he says. “We’ve become already quite dependent on these channels, in my opinion.” As more and more people join social networks, the pull of those social networks becomes stronger and stronger.
So how much creative-response is there to these corporations? Daniel doesn’t see any. Antonino quotes John Sayles, the US film-maker, who says that “we all work for corporations in some form”. For Antonino, as for John Holloway, there is no such thing as purity. “Part of creative-response is finding the free space and not thinking about things as black and white,” he says. “Public Enemy, of course, Fight the Power – major label. It’s important that we have sophistication and nuance about how to use that.”
Antonino ends with a story of how his friend and artist Ai Weiwei found the free space on Twitter to subvert an attempted Chinese cover-up of the shoddy construction of schools in Sichuan. Seven thousand schoolrooms collapsed in the province during the earthquake of 2008, leading to the death of up to five thousand children. Every day since, Ai Weiwei tweets the birthday of one of the kids killed.
“That’s a sophisticated way to work with the system to do something that’s an amazing creative-response, so those children are never forgotten,” Antonino says with pride. In this way, creative-response is able to stretch out its fingers and touch people beyond its time and place. “Fighting them at their level is a difficult proposition because they have the wealth,” Antonino adds. “But we have the numbers, we have the better ideas. We have to remember that, we have to get to the free space.”
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.