The NBN, artist economies and creative digital culture; a Call to Arms

Today I delivered my first ever Keynote talk for the Regional Arts Australia conference, Kumuwuki.

Here are the slides, followed by what I said… [NB this is not a direct transcript, and I’m very likely to tangent in the live speech, but this is the general gist].

Ten years ago I published “The Wireless Confusion; a Call to Arms”, inviting people to observe and engage with the mobile data space creatively. Looking back at that now you could just as easily change a few words and call it “The National Broadband Network Confusion; a Call to Arms”.

So today, ten years on, I have a new challenge. It’s time for us to join in creating a vast, but personalised, distributed network.

Now, for those who aren’t aware, a distributed network is (unsurprisingly) a technical term for when programming and data are spread across more than one computer. A problem shared is a problem halved, right? But before I explain what precisely I’m imagining, let me set the scene.

Firstly I must acknowledge the incredible influence that my co-presenter Sara Diamond has had on my thinking. She first invited me to the Banff New Media Institute in 2001 for a summit called “Intimate Technologies, Dangerous Zones” (but I’ve been back several times). It changed my life.

Since 1996, based in the UK, I had begun to see this wonderful strange new internet-enabled future evolve before my eyes. Yet my peers and superiors constantly told me I was wrong. I spent an awfully long time believing them, until I met Sara and her networks. Suddenly I realised I wasn’t alone. Other people not only had their own crazy visions of a similar future, but they were interested in listening to mine… and they frequently told me they agreed!

This gave me the confidence to believe in my own ideas, and the relief to know I was part of something. It also told me that actually our ideas weren’t bad. Instead of being wrong all the time, people actually liked the work we were creating. I actually felt like I was meant to be exactly where I was. Going back to the UK and being asked “How was your holiday” then felt less of a brutally offensive insult.

The second example that frames my concept is the De La Guarda model. De La Guarda are an aerial performance art group from Argentina. They craft their show at home, then start a tour that takes them all over the world. At each site they don’t just rehearse the performance, they duplicate it. Newbies start with a casting call, if lucky move on to training sessions and the very best get brought in to the live shows as small parts and then lead roles. Once the show is perfect the core team moves on to the next tour location, leaving a complete cast, crew and rigger team behind. Over time, as new tours are called and the inevitable physical stress of such dynamic physical performance takes its toll, they have a vast network of performers and riggers to call on.

Both of these things are, to my mind, distributed networks. The people I met in Canada came from all over the world. They inspired and influenced me, they supported my dreams and ambitions, and they encouraged me to continue while they themselves fought their own battles. It was a reciprocal community. De La Guarda created a different type of distributed network, more along a franchise model. One which existed physically and could be called on at any time to become core team or stand in for any of the others.

Last year I was involved in what turned out to be the final gathering of the BNMI. Accepting, finally, that this amazing space was no longer going to be around affected me deeply. I decided that perhaps this was reason enough to consider what an Australian BNMI might look like.

Since visiting as an artist since 2003 and moving here in 2008, I’ve seen a big shift in Australian digital culture. Right now we’re in the midst of a huge transition point. For me personally, I turn 40 next year and have been progressing from being a facilitator, educator and (most recently) strategic policy developer into being an artist. At the same time, the world wide web turned 21 this year, marking its shift into adulthood (to put that in geeky context, the Internet turned 43). And, of course, we are watching the rollout of the NBN.

All this should be great. But it’s not. The “system” is failing. It probably always was, but ‘the powers that be’ managed to carry on regardless and we rarely knew or paid much attention. Today’s hyper-connected world means that we see things differently, we see things more clearly. We can observe, from closeup or far away, how many systems are broken – ethically, politically, economically and with regards culture, climate, education… The systems we are told are used to streamline society (but which inevitably are used as control infrastructures) were designed for a different time. The same conditions, contexts and rules no longer apply.

It’s time to follow our own path, to trust in ourselves and each other instead of expecting someone else to show us the way. The internet has enabled us to connect, co-create (whether over vast distances or just around the corner), and support each other whether emotionally or financially. Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are now so common they have (for better or worse) become a form of marketing. Once a mainstream passive audience, the crowd is alert, active, participatory … and demanding!

Hackers, makers and tinkerers (those kooky individuals and communities once relegated to backyards and sheds) have been able to connect with other like minds. Manufacturing has come out of the warehouse and into the home.

The future is now.

All we have to do is join the dots.

There is this perception – not just in Australia, but around the world – that arts and culture is created in urban centres and gets shipped out to those poor little people in the countryside. My belief is that Australia is FULL of wonderful sheds of inventiveness. reallybigroadtrip aims to go and find them, look at what they do and how they sustain, learn from them and make new things with them, let them know they are not alone, connect them with other like minds, and share their stories with the world.

This is easy for me to say. I’m single and have no children, mortgages, venues or staff to support. This means I can experiment much more freely. I take take the necessary risks, crowdsource my life, explore the landscape – literally and figuratively – and report back.

What – I hope – will result is a vast geographic distributed network, which will help Australia recognise the incredible wealth that’s just down the road, or across the superhighway. What I hope will result is an awareness that – despite what you seem to think – this country is full of a wealth of stories, history and culture that is equally as unique and valuable as the pedestals you hold for Europe and America. And, more than anything, what I hope will result is a sustainable creative economy that neither begs for recognition or handouts.

UPDATE 23rd October:

There were some lovely backchannel discussions on twitter which I storified and am embedding below. You can also read Jane Howard‘s fantastically-fast-fingered live-blogging of our talks. And for the MANY people who have asked, here’s a copy of Sara Diamond’s Keynote talk (am working on getting her slides too). Don’t forget you can buy Euphoria & Dystopia (edited by Sara D & Sarah Cook) for more on the Banff New Media Institute.

Keynote twitter backchannel