Fire, Fire, Fire — words from Creative State 2019
I didn’t actually call my talk Fire, Fire, Fire (after Nitzer Ebb’s 1987 club classic Join in The Chant) but after hearing a few of the other uncritical tech utopian talks earlier in the day I probably should have done so. If you listen to that tune — and I encourage you to do so — you will realize that the ‘chant’ continues with ‘muscle and hate’, and in the last few years that ‘muscle and hate’ has surfaced onto the mainstream internet.
Because I don’t ever ‘write’ talks but instead assemble slides which I then talk ‘around’, so what follows is a slightly more verbose version with some useful external links.
Presented at Creative State Summit 2019. May 30, 2019. (Obviously ‘views are my own’ and are the product of two decades of professional experience but do not necessarily reflect the views of my employers)
Hello and thank you to everyone who made this event possible and invited me to speak. I’d like to acknowledge, as a migrant (and the son of Pākehā New Zealander and a Chinese refugee), that I am speaking on the unceded sovereign lands of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to elders past present and emerging.
Many of you know of my previous work, but for those who dont, I’ve previously worked in a power station in Sydney, a Gilded Age mansion house in New York, and now in a building resembling a shopping mall in the centre of Melbourne. In the context of art practice, I’ve also run an independent record label, founded a music magazine, and organised countless bacchanalian night time events in clubs, and curated festivals. It is the latter activities that have deeply influenced and developed my professional practices in the former.
My first introduction to ‘experience design’, and ‘immersive experiences’, was through underground parties, raves, and clubs in the early 1990s. The ability to use, reuse, and claim space for temporary, transcendent, and sometimes subversive events was a privilege and a luxury then. It’s also important to remember that these events and spaces were kept safe for many attendees — particularly women, people of colour, and LGBTQI+ — by being exclusionary and underground.
When I was assembling this talk, I was contacted by the organizers who told me not to talk about my current work at ACMI but instead to make some provocations about technology, the internet and cultural institutions in Victoria as a whole.
So today I’m not talking about the topics that I would usually talk about. There won’t be anything about AI — although having heard only rapturous praise of the opportunities it brings earlier today, I do need to say that anyone who talks about AI without explicitly calling out inherent bias, and worse, talks about deepfakes as a comic relief, is both dangerous and naive. These technologies are not neutral and are already weaponised by state and non-state actors.
I’m also not talking about VR, AR, new interfaces, or ‘immersive’ or ‘location based experiences’. There are plenty of talks I’ve given about those that are out there on the web for you to find and listen to. And in the context of this talk they are red herrings.
Instead I’m talking about the general opportunity of the Internet and related technologies — which often get loosely and lazily described as ‘digital’. I’ll run with that lazy conflation for the next 15 minutes.
I benefitted greatly from the early years of the web, the Golden Age of the Internet. Back then student debts were manageable, there was some remnants of a welfare state, and it was pre-Austerity times. I could even get paid for writing about music, even paid columns in the street press. Imagine that. This was a privileged time in comparison to now. I’ll come back to that later in this talk.
Australia, Victoria particularly, has been at the heart of many firsts — from the first feature length films, the first Australian-made videogames, much significant ‘new media art’ and net.art in the 1980s and 1990s. We also just heard from Melbourne’s Zero Latency who pioneered free roaming commercial VR experiences well before the Oculus and Vive. And — in the creative sector where ‘crunch’ is all too commonplace — let us not forget that Victoria also pioneered the ‘8 hour working day’.
During the 1990s and early 2000s Australia was a pioneer in digital heritage. There were many world leading projects exploring the opportunities of a networked globe — Australian Museums On Line in the 1990s, Collections Australia Network in the early 2000s, and now Trove. And here in Victoria, Victorian Collections and the visionary VICNET that provided artists and community organizations with their first web access and website hosting in the mid 1990s (operating out of State Library of Victoria). Add to that the many groundbreaking institutional projects of that period and Australia punched far above its weight. These were significant, pioneering, and many (better known) overseas projects from Europeana to Digital Public Library of America drew inspiration from these local Australian innovations.
Perhaps interestingly all of these projects happened before ‘digital transformation’ became a hashtag (and a ‘new business opportunity’ for large management consultancies to provide). And so we are still yet to see, in Australia, what a web-native, web-scale public cultural institution might be.
At the core of my work for the past decade and a half have been principles of openness that have been part of an attempt to scaffold a web-native, web-scale institution. Open access, open source, open APIs, and an open design practice. These have been deliberate design and infrastructural choices.
But now, especially in the last 3 years, the web, and networked technology more broadly, has darkened.
Toronto-based designer Udit Vira writes in his short essay for NESTA’s Finding Ctrl report (2019), “[a handful of corporations] have systematically divided people into market segments and political tribes. A universal network splintered into a mess of disjointed platforms and disenfranchised user bases by a handful of corporations seeking profit and power.”
I wrote in 2018 that, “digital objects, digitised objects, are more fragile than their analogue ‘originals’. Digitised objects exist in systems that require power, engineering, maintenance, software development. At least analogue collections were relatively stable in airconditioned conditions for many decades.”
And I’ve learned from the last twenty years that, unlike the fears of some in the cultural sector that digitization would diminish demand for physical access and visitation, in fact it has been the exact opposite. Digital access has vastly increased the demand for physical access — but these demands are now coming from different kinds of people and in different ways that institutions are often neither resourced nor designed to meet. The idea of a singular large exhibition about a topic as a way of meeting the broad needs of access has been replaced by a thousand smaller demands in the niches. And all of those demands are in the context of desiring a social experience and one in which the institution plays host to a series of conversations around objects, media, and ideas.
It has turned out that ‘digital’, ‘digitization’, and more broadly, ‘technology’, now means higher costs for public institutions. Not just direct costs but indirect costs as well. And for those of us working under public sector funding models, this means a significant shift from needing ‘capital funding’ to needing significant increases in ‘operational’ funding. This is a broad public sector technology challenge but particularly complex in cultural institutions because we aren’t in the business of purely transactional relationships with citizens such as ‘digitizing the process of getting a new drivers license’.
As Zeynep Tufekci (2019) puts it, we are witnessing a “wholesale tilt to becoming a tenant society”. But without the funding models to finance rented services.
With this shift from analogue to digital, from owned to rented, we are seeing a loss of some important commonly shared rituals around access to analogue culture. With this has come a similar flattening — a flattening that sees cultural works reduced to ‘content’ and then a loss of nuance, and of the importance of difference.
As my friend and musician Damon Krukowski also warns, in relation to Spotify, we are also seeing the rise of universal standardized interfaces for art and culture. Damon argues that Spotify’s totalising global interface strips all the nuance and difference between music, thus reducing your listening experience to interchangeable playlists. This is experientially and aesthetically quite different from the distinctive, communicative, and nuanced experience of mixtapes previously made for friends and lovers.
Unlike what many of us as 1990s internet utopians thought would happen, we have seen a major shift from a decentralized web to a highly centralized web. This return of centralization of control, through a decreasing number of corporations and infrastructure, fuels the ability for both corporations and the State to ‘see at scale’. This underpins what Shoshana Zuboff terms ‘surveillance capitalism’. Not unsurprisingly, opportunities built on networked technologies now have a tendency to form ‘winner takes all’ markets.
As Australian academic, now in New York, Kate Crawford and her fellow researcher Vladen Joler (2018) write, “each small moment of convenience — be it answering a question, turning on a light, or playing a song — requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data. The scale of resources required is many magnitudes greater than the energy and labor it would take a human to operate a household appliance or flick a switch. A full accounting for these costs is almost impossible, but it is increasingly important that we grasp the scale and scope if we are to understand and govern the technical infrastructures that thread through our lives”.
This is not good.
One might think of networked digital technologies better as fire. Fire, one of the original technologies harnessed by our distant human ancestors, brought cooking, heating, warmth, but also when uncontrolled, it brought wildfires, and some humans, it turned out, enjoy lighting fires as firebugs. It was not until we collectively figured out how to control fire that it really became useful.
While we attempt to figure this out we need cultural institutions and art more than ever. We need to develop new types of critical literacies.
And we need to think deeply about whether art is used as a social glue, to bring our communities together, or whether it acts, as it sometimes still does, as a social solvent, dividing our communities by social and cultural status.
We will need to support new types of experiences, in new types of institutions; work with new processes and find new ways to collaborate, and build new social structures, new infrastructure, and support new ecosystems.
In order to do this we need to understand that all cultural institutions, and all cultural activities, traffic in the currency of time. Whether we are for-profit commercial or non-profit entities, our audiences, visitors, collaborators live in an incredibly time poor society. And when we do draw on people’s time, we need to deliver an unexpectedly great return on that time gift back to that person.
We may need new types of institution. And we may need to redefine the missions of our current institutions. And, especially for museums and galleries, we need to be clear that spectacle, ever increasing blockbusters, are both unsustainable and not enough for our public charters to deliver.
Mat Dryhurst is a Berlin-based artist and writer who has been examining the economics and new cultures of how independent music and scenes now survive. He warned (in 2013) — and this is especially important for the Gen X and older people in this room — that, “we can often get stuck in looped holding patterns that fetishize the aesthetic and cultural strategies and aspirations of the 80s and 90s, and are skeptical about internet native … cultures”. The social and economic contexts have radically changed — in those times young people had access to opportunities that no longer exist — and we need to be very careful not to assume that the same opportunities that people like us had, are still available to contemporary artists, makers and creators.
We need museums to play a new role. And a role that will be shaped largely through intentional design and strategic decision making. We know that museums are not neutral and that they need to take specific intentional choices to make change.
Museums, have, of course, always been about change. I’ve written before that, museums, even at their most conventional, are about change, even if that change is simply keeping an object in a state of suspended animation for the future.
We need museums to be more than that.
We need museums to be democratic spaces, to function as engines of curiosity for our communities, and to provide important persistence in this age of ephemerality — an ephemerality only exacerbated by the transformation to a tenant society.
We are fortunate in Victoria to have such significant access to design talent across all the disciplines — architecture, communication design, user experience design, digital design, service design. But we need to ensure that our deployment and use of design is done within an ethical and humane framework.
Aral Balkan‘s (2017) ethical design manifesto is a good place to start. Although it was developed in the context of digital services it has broader application. At the base of the pyramid are concerns that we need to re-assert — decentralized, private, open, interoperable, secure, and sustainable — before we move on to the concerns that designers have tended to focus more on.
We need to ask ourselves what new institutions we need to design and bring into being. How might they leverage the best, and largely unrealized opportunities of a networked world? How might public subsidy be best used for the local Victorian creative ecosystem in the context of a global economy and network? How might governments truly value the impact of cultural institutions beyond tourism and the visitor economy? And how might out institutions have long term impact on Victorian creativity and the curiosity that underpins it?
I would like to close with a quote from writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor in conversation with critical media theorist Geert Lovink (2014), “we need cultural institutions and non-commercial structures to support people to do critical and creative work. When those institutions erode, advertisers and private interests step into the breach and gain influence, and the public sphere suffers”.
We need to take better care of each other and our creative communities.
[Cue enormous cats grooming each other on the IMAX screen]
Slightly edited version of a keynote given at Creative State Summit 2019. May 30, 2019.