Are you sure you want to remove Politics?

screengrab from facebook asking “Are you sure you want to remove Politics?”

screengrab from facebook asking “Are you sure you want to remove Politics?”

Facebook has changed its algorithm, again. Cue critics of change, critics of Facebook, critics of anything-anti-business; especially those businesses which (quite remarkably) are the ones being demoted with this latest shift. Or so it would appear.

“People told us they wanted to see more stories from friends and Pages they care about, and less promotional content”, their update says. In theory this should be a good thing. In practice it comes only shortly after the rollout of “Topics”, the auto-inserted tagging system. Databasing ‘thought’, shared.

For those like me (who do not want their posts to be neatly commodified into saleable, trendable packages for the benefit of Facebook’s commercial partners) you can remove those tags before hitting ‘publish’. However if you happen to edit your posts (which I frequently do, to correct typos or add extra links or updates) and hit ‘publish’ for the second time, those tags mysteriously, frustratingly, re-appear. There’s no ‘opt out of auto-tagging everything’ option, so I find myself meticulously re-checking every post, even scanning whole pages of posts to check that errant Topics haven’t been added ‘for my convenience’, and removing them when they invariably have.

Last night I noticed something that really concerned me. I’d shared a post, the voice of someone I know from Australia who was at the protests in Dallas. Manal Younus is a powerful spoken word performer and writer. Her post shared her perspective of a day full of so much beauty and love, conflicted with grief and horror. It’s a beautiful read for its humanness, its simplicity, its reveal of abundant togetherness and solidarity in the face of a world driven by hate and fear. But it had the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, so of course Facebook auto-tagged it “Politics”. (Manal also happens to be Muslim; given what came next I’m grateful Facebook does not, yet, auto-tag by religion).

I did what I always do, de-tagged the Topic and hit ‘publish’. Then I realised I’d tagged Manal’s personal profile not her Page and, both respecting her privacy and wanting to help connect those who want more access to her work, I edited it to change the link and hit ‘publish’ once more. The ‘Politics’ tag had re-appeared, so, sighing, I hit ‘edit’ again. I was using my mobile (where I hadn’t noticed this problem before) where this time it seemed I didn’t have access to ‘remove topics’ . Worse, when looking for the ‘remove topics’ link, I saw something I’d never noticed before: an invitation to “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip” (my page).

screengrab from facebook asking if I wanted to “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip” (my page)

screengrab from facebook asking if I wanted to “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip” (my page)

I talk about Politics a lot (“no kidding”, says everyone who’s ever met me). I happen to think everyone should talk about Politics; indeed they do, they just don’t think they do. I talk to a lot of people who say they don’t care about Politics, who say they have no opinion. Yet lean toward the slightest questioning and watch as opinions and values roll out. Politics isn’t cool. We shouldn’t rock the boat. We have it easy, we shouldn’t complain. It’s not ‘our place’ to speak out.

Far too many people have been given the impression that Politics isn’t their domain. It is. It’s everyone’s domain. The thought of excluding all mention of it frankly appals me.

We already know Facebook is an echo chamber. It (and other closed-web platforms) reinforce our bubbles, show us what we should be reading according to where we are, who we know and what we’ve previously liked. This streamlining might make us feel more comfortable but it does nothing to open our eyes to the world outside. Being able to additionally remove all mention of something that Facebook’s algorithm deems “Politics” can only harm us, sanitise us further from seeing through the eyes of ‘otherness’ and the empathy that brings.

My Facebook feeds feature Governmental Politics and creative social change embedded within contexts of art, technology, buslife, intentional communities, natural environments. They include reminders of extreme beauty and harsh truths — often juxtaposed in the same status update. I try not to preach and I’m trying to get better at ‘show don’t tell’, but I often fail — the curse of both privilege and generations of preachers in my ancestry (I’m a begrudging Vicar’s daughter). So if someone doesn’t want to be preached at, even occasionally, even unintentionally, then they’re probably best off not following my social feeds. But when they do, and when there’s art and beauty mentioned alongside the politics of fear and hatred, why should they be denied access to both simply for Facebook asserting the dominance of one?

So much of society’s problem is precisely due to this dominant assertion; otherness is best kept out of sight, out of mind. When reading that invitation to exclude, “Hide posts about Politics from Reallybigroadtrip”, part of me wanted to shout “Seriously? You want to read Reallybigroadtrip but only when there’s no mention of Politics? Then unfollow me, because you won’t see much else” but that would be doing exactly what their invitation intends to — distancing the communication, compounding the problem. I spend much of my time in random conversations with strangers specifically because I want to hear from people with views that are not my own. Of course this comes with difficulties; I don’t enjoy hearing bigotry, but I do want to understand why someone can be bigoted, and the only way that’s possible is by actively conversing with bigots.

I applaud Facebook for changing their algorithm away from preferencing business, but I continue to dislike their commodification of our thoughts and ideas into re-sellable packages. I reject that my thoughts, all thought, are deemed a meagre product in their trends analysis. And I deeply mistrust their intentions when inviting exclusion to entire topics, never mind when those topics are determined by algorithm.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” is the regular mantra delivered in response to the straight/white/male norm. Those who believe they are becoming oppressed have had it all their own way for so long they can no longer even see it for what it is. The monopoly of mainstream media, the homogeneity of TV and Film, and the proliferation of echo chambers do nothing to challenge this norm. It has to be your decision to look beyond. You choose to pull back the curtain, or you comply and accept the status quo.

I believe the only way we are going to get past increasing unrest is by allowing the outside in, by embracing otherness for all its wonder instead of building yet more walls to keep it out. I long for the day when more people see more diversity, more marginalised voices, more otherness. In order for society to heal and move toward a more open and balanced collective harmony, we need to start seeing, start hearing. Doing so loses nothing and gains everything.

So, no, Facebook; I do not want to hide Politics. I do not want Facebook to even offer the hiding of Politics. And I would warmly welcome anyone who has hidden Politics from Reallybigroadtrip, or any other page, to come and talk to me about it. I promise I will listen.

Do read the comments!

"never read the comments" bracelet. image credit: jessamyn west CC: by-nc-sa https://www.flickr.com/photos/iamthebestartist/11409781184

“never read the comments” bracelet. image credit: jessamyn west CC: by-nc-sa 

The whole arts sector has #freethearts; peak arts bodies have ArtsPeak; visual artists and visual arts orgs have NAVA; performing arts has the Theatre Network; Majors have AMPAG… but there is NO ONE to represent the needs and concerns of the interdisciplinary, inter-dependent artist in Australia. So a few of us have decided to come together, as The Protagonists, to fill that gap within the sector-wide discussions.

As part of our short-term strategies for a stronger voice for the indies, we’re calling for a NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION on JUNE 17th. The idea is for anyone, to do anything, anywhere they like. All we ask is that you share your action with us so that others can join you, or be inspired to create their own. We don’t have time; we don’t have money; we are not organising anything specifically other than collating everyone’s actions; we know how bloody hard it is to do ANYTHING without the security of a regular income; but WE CAN DO THIS!

DO READ THE COMMENTS!

My action is something I’ve been thinking about doing for ages, originally as an anti-TPP approach, but I’ll see how this one goes and then quite possibly do it again. Or YOU can, coz, yknow, it’s a free country (sort of).

We all know the adage, “Never read the comments!”. It’s what we say whenever there’s a positive article about a niche issue in mainstream media, which we read with delight (‘yay they hear us!’) and then we read the comments (‘UGH’). At which point we want to gouge out our own eyes with our fingernails and slit our throats with a paperknife… because if that’s how the ‘average Australian’ thinks, well, we frankly must deserve the impending annihilation of our species.

BUT WAIT… what if these aren’t the voices of the mainstream? What if they’re the voices of a few people who genuinely don’t understand the issue or who have been brainwashed by haters? What if we actually engaged in open, friendly, dialogue with these people? Couldn’t we, maybe, possibly, actually change their minds and even learn something ourselves in the process?

So here’s the plan:

  1. Register with all mainstream media websites for the day (you should be able to get a trial for free);
  2. Search for all arts commentary within each site and read/respond to every comment that speaks negatively to the arts;
  3. DO: be positive, open, constructive, friendly, and above all, listen. DO NOT: be sarcastic, aggressive, patronising, shouty, or feed the trolls.
  4. Tag each comment with #artprotagonists and the url http://artprotagonists.com so readers can see what we’re doing and why.
  5. Screengrab any cool convos and share them with us via our hashtag #artprotagonists, to our Facebook Page, Twitter handle, or our blog. Or if you prefer, email us: actions@artprotagonists.com.

Notes on dealing with trolls:

  1. Don’t. Just don’t.
  2. Not all argumentative/opinionated people on the internet are trolls, many are simply defensive because they’re expecting to have to defend themselves. If you’re not sure whether they are actually a troll or not, I generally go for the ‘three strikes’ rule: If they are argumentative, try responding in a gentle manner that explains you’re simply trying to better understand where they’re coming from. If they can’t provide any semblance of rational, open exchange within three responses: stop all communications with them immediately (no matter how much they attempt to trigger you).
  3. If you have particular trouble and need advice or backup, I’ll be around via @feesable (or any other form of contact) on the day and would be happy to join your convo and provide direct support if needed.
  4. If you don’t know what a troll is, you’re a Very Lucky Human!

So, there’s my action. It’s small but I’m sure will make for a busy day!

What will YOU do? Share your action via our Call to Action page, and above all: have fun!

x
The Protagonists

Arts, Culture, Politics and Grief

my sign at the rally against the proposed $8.5million cuts to South Australian arts funding "Fund Fresh Arts, Not Old Farts! Art That Thumps, Not Toxic Dumps!"

my sign at the rally against the proposed $8.5million cuts to South Australian arts funding

And so it begins. The bad news rolls in for some, while others breathe a sigh of guarded relief. We all know how fragile things are, for everyone. Fuck.

Arts organisations across the country are finding out this week if they got their four-year funding or not. The next funding round won’t be until 2019, so for (far too) many, that means closure. This is the outcome of last year’s $104.7million Australia Council for the Arts heist by Senator Brandis (a year to the day, pretty much). The entire arts sector has been on tenterhooks ever since — like we needed any additional anxiety to cope with. Hopefully we’ll oust this fuckwit of a government in a couple of months, but even if we did (and even if we got more money for the sector because of it), for many it would be too little, too late. For South Australia, where we have the threat of a further $8.5million cuts looming, this could mark the end of the Festival State… but it’s OK, because we will be saved by Toxic Waste, right? Ugh. No.

Before the trolls come out with “I don’t want my tax dollars wasted on you artist dole bludgers”, let me say this. The problem with these cuts is not that a few plays or exhibitions won’t be happening; it’s about the bigger picture, the long term perspective, the ecosystem. These cuts will leave a big gaping hole where less genuine meaning comes into our lives, even if just on the periphery. Everyone who has ever read a book, listened to music, been to the movies, watched a play or attended a Festival… all those stars you admire, who make you laugh or cry, who you follow on social media to feel a deeper connection to their lives because they MEAN something to you… they all had to start somewhere. Even the ‘high arts’, the swanky “Major Performing Arts” companies (who have mostly remained deathly silent over the last year), even they will notice when their orchestras, ballets, operas and stages fall silent.

Think about the sporting ecosystem. If there were no youth teams today there could be no World Cups of the future. It’s that simple. It’s the kids who won’t get to be part of a youth theatre group, the experimenters who won’t have anywhere to go to find out if their insanity might not actually be golden. We’re suffocating our future for the sake of an offensive drop in the budgetary ocean. And we’re doing it while storing planes we don’t fly and building subs we won’t use, while tax sits rotting in offshore havens. We have the money. We can afford to give ourselves a reasonable, human, existence. And art is a vital part of that existence. Art’s value is long term and meaningful, not short term and economic. We’re killing our souls, just like we’re killing our planet.

Some say that artists have it easy by comparison to, say, those affected by the end of the car manufacturing industry, or the gaping hole of transition required once the mining industry goes down (which it will). We certainly have it easier than the hundreds of asylum seekers locked up in our concentration camps or the Indigenous communities still living in asbestos-ridden homes. And yet our failure to identify arts and culture as a core element of life is one of the reasons we have ended up so commodified and dehumanised in contemporary society. We have lost touch with nature, beauty, pause and reflection. Isn’t it time we recognised that and put the needs of our souls on the same priority level as feeding our bodies and advancing our minds in these upcoming elections? Conversations about art are so often made about money in these times, but that misses the point. Life is about so much more than how much we earn, what car we drive, where we live.

Some say that yes, this is harsh, but it will be good for us in the long term. Necessity is the mother of invention, limit the artist and you lend them wings, yes, all of that for sure. We will rebuild, again, and we will be stronger because of it, again. But this is gonna hurt before it gets better.

So to my friends and colleagues across the country struggling with the rollout of news, please do something for me. Please give yourselves a big fucking hug. You’re all brilliant, strong, resilient motherfuckers, even if you don’t feel that way right now. I have the utmost admiration for all of you and what you do and I am proud to have so many of you in my personal corner of this vast ecosystem. This is shitty, really really really shitty. But you’re cunning little buggers, the lot of you. You’ll either find another way to keep going, or you’ll reinvent. After all, making the beautiful from the blank is what you do. And wow do you do it well.

After you’ve give yourselves (and each other) a hug, regardless of outcome or even your proximity to these announcements, please allow yourselves time to grieve. You may not feel you deserve to, you may feel more sorry for others than you do for yourselves, but we are all in this together — what hurts one, hurts all. Recognise the need to grieve for yourself, for your colleagues, for youth arts and for audiences of the future.

And then get angry, but turn that anger’s focus outward, toward the election. All that creative energy you have exploding within you is perfectly designed to become direct action, small or large. Organise Flash Mobs. Participate in rallies. Lie down on the streets in tutus. Read — and reply to — the comments. Door knock in Tory districts. Get out on the streets and talk to strangers. Ask if their kids enjoy dancing, playing an instrument, art class, circus school, etc etc etc… then remind them that none of that will exist if we allow this neoliberal onslaught to continue. My hope is that even Conservatives might, maybe, possibly, have souls too. Let’s use our creative passion to help them relocate theirs. We don’t need to argue in economic terms, we need to connect in emotional ones.

We can do this. We have to do this.

My deepest love to all of you. Be good to yourselves, we need you. x

rcws – no, strange dude in a ute

#‎randomconversationswithstrangers

no, strange dude in a ute, i do not want your esky, nor to shake your hand for the hundredth time. i do not want to hear you’re Aboriginal while insisting that Uluru is called Ayres Rock “after the man who found it” (found it? fuck off), or that your son wants to be a copper, “an honourable job”. i am not flattered that you think that i am “a strong woman”, that you “admire me”, that i have “powerful eyes”.

I have tolerance and patience and an open heart and home to many people, but not you. go take your drunk driving circuits around the car park somewhere else. ideally with the engine shut off and the keys in the ocean.

#oneoftheonesidrathernothavethanksallthesame #timetoleave‬

Artists, Technology, Institutions and Social Change

Art and the connected future

Last Saturday I spoke at NGV’s Symposium, Art and the Connected Future, one of the public talk programs that runs alongside their, understandably popular, Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition. I was particularly chuffed to be invited because, given my currently dire financial situation, the last time I’d been in Melbourne I couldn’t afford the entry fee. This time not only was entry to this most excellent of shows (in both content and presentation) free for speakers and delegates, but I was also flown over, put up in a swanky hotel for the night and paid to talk – luxury! More seriously I was delighted to be part of what I imagined to be a fascinating dialogue around arts, technology and social change framed by the life and work of two of the world’s most prominent creative troublemakers. On that last point, I may have missed the mark somewhat. I’ve been in the creative digital world for twenty years now, over eight of those spent living in Australia. I hadn’t asked, but I imagine they invited me because of the work I’ve done with the-phone-book Limited, ANAT, the Australia Council for the Arts and my general technoevangelism. In retrospect I’m not sure they were expecting the techno-cynic and fully-immersed social change voice that I have unquestioningly become.

Amongst an inspiring lineup for the day (I storified the tweets for those interested in far more of the day’s excellent convo than I have given due attention to in this post), my panel session was “Technically Speaking: Art, Artists and Audiences” with Seb Chan (ACMI), Kathy Cleland (University of Sydney) and Ben Davis (an American arts critic, who had kicked us off with an excellent Keynote just before), and chaired by Simon Crerar (Buzzfeed). The questions we had been asked to consider were: How have artists been redefined by digital developments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How are artists using digital and social media to shape their art, and their artistic identity? What recent developments in the digital realm have impacted the art world and the ways we engage with art? How have digital advances extended the reach and power of art and artists? Why are museums and art galleries using new technologies? What impact does this have on audience experiences?

While I hope I brought some considered responses to these areas of thought, I couldn’t help but bring things back to the role of artists, institutions and technology gatekeepers in a contemporary society dominated by capitalism. With all the destruction capitalism (and its political bodyguard, neoliberalism) wreak on arts, culture and human existence, why are we still asking the same art/technology/audience questions which simply maintain a broken status quo?

To put this in context, in January Ai Weiwei pulled his exhibition in Denmark in protest to their asylum-seeker laws… so why was the NGV’s exhibition still going ahead? This country seems to pride itself on maintaining a reputation for some of the worst human rights abuses in the Western world. I’m certainly disgusted by our Government’s treatment of innocent humans asking for help… so why is Ai Weiwei OK with Australia’s asylum-seeker policies? (I have asked, but still don’t have an answer). After twenty years in this space I’m truly disappointed with where digital culture is going as a whole. Particularly with regards increased surveillance (bolstered by physical anti-protest laws nationally and the corporate sponsorship of law enforcers), proprietary and closed online platforms (where we are the product, not the customer), and ongoing battles against net neutrality. Perhaps I’m therefore not the best person to evangelise about how artists can help institutions gain better engagement with audiences through technology in quite the way I used to.

I’ve got to admit, twenty years ago I had high hopes for the future of our digital world. I believed the internet could finally gave us all a much-needed equal voice, that it would connect niche like-minded communities across vast geographic distances and empower users to meaningfully engage with anyone, anywhere, regardless of physical or economic capability. I’ve been pondering a full article reflecting on twenty years of my role in creative geekery and the trends (both good and bad) which I have watched emerge, but in summary: the doubts which had always lurked in the back of my naively optimistic mind have sadly come to fruition. Instead of the utopian digital democracy the internet could have become, we find ourselves addicted to algorithms that commodify our character and homogenise our humanness. Instead of enthusiastically embracing innovative business models and amplifying the increased voices of the many, our media monoliths have somehow managed to both profit behind paywalls and abuse our airwaves – simultaneously! The same tools which enabled us to participate in vital social movements like Arab Spring and Occupy are equally those which threaten the freedoms of whistleblowers. Indeed in at least one of Ai Weiwei’s documentaries in the exhibition, The Fake Case, he mentions that his very name is banned from Chinese internet. What sets us free can also destroy us.

But what does all this geeky social change talk have to do with artists? For me, everything. Over the last few years, as I have shifted my existence more fully into the activism world, I quickly noticed the similarities between processes. An artist has a concept, an idea they wish to communicate, and (most of the time) a clear idea of who they wish to communicate it with. They then need to find partners and resources to enable that idea to become real and present (be that in physical form or not). Then they have to create a buzz, awareness, marketing, to bring those audiences to the work, evaluate those engagements and reflect on what was revealed and what that means for future work. Then the cycle starts all over again with a new development of the same concept or a whole different tangent altogether.

Now go back to re-read that section but replace the word ‘artist’ with ‘activist’; ‘a concept, an idea’ with ‘a cause, an issue’ and ‘audiences’ with ‘supporters’. See? It’s the same process.

One of the roles of the arts is to hold a up mirror against society. What we see reflected back at us is often unpleasant, uncomfortable, unnerving… and necessarily so, especially in contemporary times. As Alison Croggan says in “On art as therapy” (Overland):

Sometimes art makes you anxious. That is part of its job. Sometimes its therapy exists in bringing to the surface our hidden traumas, our worst crimes, our darkest, most secret desires, and then forcing us to confront them. Making art is a process of examining our psychic unease in order to see it more clearly, inflaming rather than anesthetising our discomfort and pain. Art names our terrors as well as our joys. Sometimes, in order to make things better, art first has to make them worse.

This ‘unease’ is something that both Warhol and Weiwei do quite superbly, and for which they are much loved… by some. Sadly others disagree. The Australian’s 2014 article, “Sydney Biennale Shame Risks Funding says George Brandis” (published behind a paywall) gave us a glimpse of the dark times to come (a story we all know well). Artists boycott the Sydney Biennale because one of its key sponsors, Transfield Services (now called Broadspectrum, presumably to confuse us), make significant profits from maintaining the inhumanely-legal torture chamber known as Manus Island. Brandis spits his dummy, demanding that The Australia Council punish these -and future- sinners for biting the hand that feeds (despite the fact that increasingly it Does Not Feed!). Australia Council maintains its ‘arms length to the Government’ stance… and subsequently gets fined $104.7million… from budgets that largely affect the independent and small to medium arts sector… who are the ones most likely to create work that demonstrates our social unease and challenge the status quo. Sigh.

Still reeling from the ramifications of these OzCo cuts (and the newly proposed $8.5million cuts to arts funding in SA – for heaven’s sake, why can’t we be more like VIC?!), a couple of days ago we got a whole new kick in the gut: “Catalyst” (Brandis’ personal, non-transparent, slush fund for already-doing-quite-well-thank-you-very-much-but-sure-we’ll-take-a-few-hundred-thousand-more-because-we-can organisations, and one or two well-we-don’t-happen-to-be-your-friends-but-we-promise-not-to-be-naughty artists and orgs) is pork barrelling, using drip-fed grants announcements as photo opps for their election campaigning. [I read this news as I was about to board the flight back to Adelaide. I was horrified, disgusted, and so physically upset that I worried my visibly shaking body and laser-angry eyes wouldn’t be allowed on the plane. I even spent time exploring a delicious daydream of forcing some kind of legal action against them (imagine, the arts taking down these scumbags! bliss!)… but sadly that was not to be. I’d never heard of pork barrelling before. It may be immoral and unethical, but shamefully it turns out using public funds designated for the arts is neither illegal nor breaches electoral commission regulations. They’re good at that, this Government. If nothing else you do have to admire their astonishing capacity to make you physically ill while fully complying with the law… but then they do get to write those laws, sooooo… yeah. You see why artists need to be activists?! But I digress…]

As I wrote recently, the arts are increasingly becoming commodified and we, as the creative sector, need to both be aware of this fact and be ready to act on it – whether we are indies, SMEs or the ‘I’m alright Jack’ larger, safer, arts organisations and institutions. The arts is an ecosystem and we are ALL at risk if ANY of us are at risk. Any self-determination we felt we had as a sector is being both subtly and overtly chipped away, through internal funding cuts and bully-tactics, and external proprietary platforms and the power they wield (which in itself perfectly mirrors our social condition as a whole, not just within the arts).

 

a slide from Ben Davis' Keynote featuring a fabulous quote from "The People's Platform" by Astra Taylor

a slide from Ben Davis’ Keynote featuring a fabulous quote from “The People’s Platform” by Astra Taylor

Our NGV symposium chair, Simon Crerar, kickstarted the day by proudly sharing the recent viral success of Buzzfeed’s exploding watermelon on Facebook Live. Some online felt this astonishing feat foretold ‘the key to the future of TV‘; Simon, perhaps, felt it was the exciting future of digital arts. To me, not so much, but as we observe independent, otherness, voices struggle to gain attention or support amidst the myriad of homogenised, force-fed-by-algorithm tripe that our mainstream world has become… maybe I’m wrong.

As academic Hugh Davies mentioned in his talk on Ai Weiwei, frustrated by an all-encompassing police surveillance he established a live broadcast of his home and studio… which was shut down by police after 46hours (too much of a good thing, maybe?!). Hugh’s point – these days we may struggle more with a “fear of NOT being watched”, than the fear of “to be watched is to be an activist” (latterly referring to the German film, The Lives of Others“. I’m all for ownership of the creative experience by audiences, but these days I fear the author isn’t so much dead, it’s just getting a damned sight harder finding their signal through the noise. Personally I prefer the cheeky subversion of Paolo Cirio’s Street Ghosts and the Surveillance Camera Players over complicit acceptance of the pervasive panopticon of technological giants and the masters with whom they share our most private of correspondence.

Ben Davis’ illuminating keynote dropped a fascinating statistic into this with his comparison of high arts and games engagement. Where current tracking technologies have calculated that a museum or gallery-goer may spend up to 30seconds on a single artwork, an immersive gamer is spending 72hours a session, fully engaged and hyper-stimulated. This begs the question: where is the sublime gaze lingering longest, and what does that say about our current appreciation of the arts and culture? (… at least the kinds of art one may find in your average gallery or museum). Bring on more Slow Art Days, and alternative spaces outside the hamster wheel where we can pause, reflect, take stock before continuing with a calmer, more focused mind (like maybe hammocktime, heh). We’ll need them when the global shortage of colouring pencils hits hard.

Perhaps we as artists and our symbiotic relationship with museums and galleries is part of the problem. As Ben pointed out, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing mooted that in the future museums will be replaced by the equivalent of mood boards… enter Pinterest. Tom Uglow (Google’s Creative Lab) talked of “Art Project“, ‘The world’s art at your fingertips’ and the joy of accessing astonishingly high-resolution scans of artworks from the world’s foremost collections. Yes the technology and access potential is remarkable… but does that access negate our need to experience these works in the flesh, for ourselves, with all of the user-journey that comes from the sights and smells of the physical contexts outside the doors of the Uffizi or the Musée d’Orsay? Are we risking archiving our creative collections as artefacts instead of living, breathing, contemporary influences?

I can’t help but fear that our habitual colonisation – the capture, collection and selective release of paintings or sculptures depicting the natural environment (like some kind of Royal Society pioneer with his samples, carefully harnessing the magic of reality and preserving it in formaldehyde, or with a pin, in a glass box) – has sucked the very life out of them. The very act of taking these images or shapes from their natural context (owning it, co-opting it into our everyday, a form of scientific-cyborg assimilation) removes their otherness, their magic, their rarity. Knowing that they are always there, on demand, ticks some kind of psychological box negating our desire to even remember that one day we might want to experience them – perhaps even in person.

Don’t get me wrong, I recently visited the “Santos Museum of Economic Botany” in Adelaide (note the corporate branding) and it was a rare pleasure to view their permanent collections. But consider how little access children have to the natural world in its raw context these days – we have zoos, parks, botanic gardens, but are these not just factory farms? Colonies of artefacts, preserved for posterity while we destroy every last remaining natural habitat on the planet in the search for profits? We all grieved when ISIS destroyed the Palmyra and countless precous artefacts. But are we all simply heading toward a dark age where we will no longer require the original because we have a high-resolution scan, modelled in virtual reality for us to investigate through a mouseclick or 3D Print for ourselves at home? What if our scientists, artists and institutions are just as much to blame, or at very least partly accountable, as our capitalist enemies for bringing forward the end of the world as we know it (albeit with diametrically opposed intentions)? What a terrifying concept. And if this is true, what can we do about it, as individuals and collectively? And what power, if any, do I, we, as independent artists hold in turning things around? Pointing a finger alone risks biting the ubiquitous non-feeding hand, and even that strikes a chord of fear (this post’s critical backlash concerns me, and I’m not even answerable to anyone other than myself).

And what of artists collaborating with these technological giants? Media artists are always inventing, innovating new technological solutions as they problem solve in the process of their making. What if those inventions may inadvertently cause harm if controlled by the wrong hands. I asked Tom a ‘somewhat hyperbolic question’ (his words, justifiably), “Knowing you’re essentially working for ‘evil corp‘ (despite their claims to the contrary), what barriers, if any do you place on the development of new works which could end up in the wrong hands? Are your Creative Labs no-holds-barred, or do you ever stop to consider the potential risks? Would you cut down a project in its prime if it were, say, to become the equivalent of the next atom bomb?” (His answer was that the tech is usually already Google’s IP which artists are accessing, but that yes some of those thoughts are present).

Ben’s detailed, contextual talk revealed that the concept of ‘independent artist’ is a relatively new construct. Most major artists of yore operated in studio environments with apprentices, making work to order in a manner more akin to contemporary design than what we understand of contemporary DIY makers/producers. These emerging independent artist roles coincidentally revealed themselves around the time of the Industrial Revolution; the beginnings of capitalism begets the ‘artist labourer’. So in fact the relationship between independent artist and social change warrior has never really changed since its inception (I feel somehow empowered by that!).

As an artist your projects change you, or at least, they can… if you let them. I know my lifestyle choice has changed not just my outlook on every aspect of life and my place within it, but my entire physiology (I wasn’t expecting that!). I think about my own responsibilities a great deal, so naturally left the event pondering the responsibilities of institutions like NGV, what their role in society might be amongst the multitude of threats we face today. I wondered if hosting an exhibition of major international arts activists had changed the NGV in any meaningful ways. I’ve left them with that question and genuinely hope to receive an answer… to that, and a few more they won’t be expecting.

As seems to be my habit these days, I’m going to close yet another TL;DR post with some thoughts that risk biting the hand that feeds. I realise after the debate around the changing role of Adelaide Fringe and its backlash (both public and, more painfully, in certain deafening silences) that I’m going to earn myself a reputation of uneasy critical reflection. But if we don’t ask these questions, reflect these mirrors, then we are accepting of these status quo’s. I do not comply with the trajectory our society is on, and surely where is this civil disobedience more appropriate than in a discussion about Warhol and Weiwei? I am grateful to NGV for a really inspiring day and for being treated quite fabulously – spoiled, in fact. But these questions remain, and I am left needing to ask them, for better or worse, not just to NGV (although some below are specific reflections from the day) but to all our cultural institutions, worldwide. Even if you’re not hosting a socially engaged arts practice within your walls, shouldn’t every artistic institution (and indeed every institution) step up – speak out against injustices, reflect on adaptations to their own status quo, fight back against this never-ending, destructive, capitalist onslaught?

I started this post mentioning the exhibition ticket price ($26 – yes I really am that poor right now) being outside my reach, and certainly I wouldn’t have been able to afford to fly over and pay the symposium’s $70. If that was a barrier to me, what would that mean for others? Had they made efforts to seek more diversity in their audiences by removing those economic barriers other than simply a concession rate (still expensive at $22.50)? And although there was a good gender balance in the speakers, we were all gleamingly white. The auditorium itself was far from packed, and also largely white. Had efforts been made to invite broader diversity in cultural and economic background? If so, what could they have done to improve things, and if not… why not?

Should any conference held in times where we’re faced with undeniable ecological disaster, provide water in small bottles destined for landfill, not from a jug and a few glasses? Were leftovers from the kitchens that provided our deliciously decadent lunch offered to the many homeless people shivering on the cold street outside, with cardboard signs that began “I don’t want to be here…” What else can we do – as organisations and individuals – that can redirect our significant privilege to those who struggle to even exist? Sure we don’t get huge salaries in the arts, but we still have more than others. While our governments refuse to step up, hiding behind ‘austerity measures’ and immoral legal systems, it’s up to us to consider these painful truths.

And then there are the even bigger questions, imbalances from so long ago they can seem too distant to even fathom. The National Museum of Australia in Canberra has been hosting ‘Encounters’, a temporary exhibition of Indigenous artefacts on loan from the vaults of the British Museum. Shouldn’t they be returned for good, not just to Australia, but to their living custodians?

And why, when independent artists are so definitively under threat, are these institutions still asking us how we can help them to maintain their engagement with audiences, when so few of them have stepped up and spoken out against these cuts? Is it seriously the role of independent artists, digital or otherwise, to preserve our cultural institutions, when perhaps it is us ourselves who are most in need of contemporary artworld preservation?

Perhaps some of these questions can be brought forward to tonight’s Art & Activism debate – if so I would love to hear their responses. I note sadly that no independent artists are speaking, something that was questioned by our audience and is all too common at these discussions. But then when you invite indies, treat them fabulously and then watch in horror as they speak with a criticism that burns, perhaps I’m doing both myself and others a disservice for speaking my mind. Time will tell…

The big scheme

This is a social change job application I recently submitted, which was rejected. One of my referees told me I should blog it, so here we go. I’ve been trying to find a way of making something like this happen for years, so if you want to hire me to make this happen, can help or have suggestions for improving it all, contact me. And if you want to help me keep going alone, I have a patreon.

Dear <redacted>,

Firstly I’d like to thank and commend you for offering this role as a remote position. I’m a nomad – I live in a bus in Australia – and find it’s exceedingly rare to find paid roles in this field which don’t require you to stay in one location. Subsequently I’ve been mostly working solo, unpaid, developing ways of bringing creativity and technology together toward progressive social change. Over the last few years I’ve been learning about social change organising, strategising, scheming, testing and delivering various approaches to this. I may well not be the person you seek for this role, but I would like to take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. Should any of it stick, we should talk!

My process
I’m largely a Media Arts Creative Producer by ‘trade’, which for me means that I have ideas and I make them happen. I don’t work exclusively with any one media, community or cause. My process starts with what I need to say, who I need to say it to, then choosing the most suitable format for that combination. From there I can determine who and what is required to bring it to life, where it is best placed to happen, and how I’m going to be able to resource it all (I’m pretty good at fundraising). Once I’ve made it happen I evaluate how it went and progress to the next challenge.

I started living in my bus almost four years ago. Freedom from rent allowed me to follow my heart with less pressure to conform to societal norms. Subsequently I began working on more and more social change focuses, which lead me to realise that making art and making change are almost exactly the same process.

Technoevangelism
Most of my twenty years working within creative digital culture have been spent encouraging others to build and maintain their own online presence through education programs, initiatives and commissions. One of my central interests has been in helping people to discover their inner geek, empowering them with the skills and confidence to amplify their voice and reach with all the opportunities the internet world promised. These days my pragmatic cynicism has me spending less time on technoevangelising and more time pointing out the risks and threats to our online presence since privacy and net neutrality became the enemy of neoliberalism. The tentative balances between public/private, promotion/protection, signal/noise have me questioning where we are letting ourselves be lead, and what we can do about it. Where my previous works put technology front and centre, my recent work actively demands you switch your mobile device off before engaging with yourself, in a hammock.

Campaigning
In terms of campaign organising I see myself as a relative n00b. Despite growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, marching with the multitudes, and all my years educating artists in maintaining their own rights, I only started becoming actively involved in the back end of organising in the last few years. In that time I’ve observed that while grassroots organising is getting smarter and better equipped to initiate and harness virality, we still sorely lack a greater intra-connection between groups. Partly this can be attributed to a lack of digital literacy, partly to a lack of time available to explore the unknown potential technology can provide when done well. My feeling is that with smarter big picture reflection, research, strategising, training and implementation, we could transform a thousand grassroots siloes into a single decentralised network comprising hundreds of thousands of articulate voices. The beauty of the decentralised network is in its recognition that no one size fits all, yet no one voice or brand speaks alone.

Proposal
Here’s a ballpark of what I’d like to do, if invited to join your team (with the obvious provisos regarding your own visions and inputs, of course!):

  • Visit you and your teams, wherever they are based, along with representatives of key movements around the globe (e.g. BLM, Occupy, Liberate Tate, Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance/WACA, Standing Rock/DAPL protesters, Voices of the 3% Aboriginal campaigners, amongst many others). Interview them about their people, process, messages and technologies and analyse them using qualitative (anecdotal, case studies) and quantitative (surveys, stats/data) methodologies.
  • Explore existing offerings (such as Network Builder, Loomio, riseup.net and others) in light of the analysis to see what’s missing and what could be improved upon. (It’s worth noting that Network Builder is currently the most popular campaign platform in AU right now, but I find it to be frustratingly expensive for grassroots movements and is often used more like a blog than its cross-campaign potential could allow).
  • Create collaborations between activists and artists (especially media artists, writers and craftivists), researchers, technologists, educators, health workers/carers, legal minds and scientists to produce training materials for each discipline working with interdisciplinary practice in mind (there’s more on my reasons for singling out these types below).
  • Build on an activist resource (something along the lines of a wiki I started sketching out a while ago, http://weareallactivistsnow.com), and a regular physical/online book club meetup for informal info sharing and discussion (again I started a format for this http://sundayafternoonactivistclub.com), which feed back into each other and feed in/out to similar online repositories/networks such as Beautiful Trouble, preventing the reinvention of wheels. This is both for knowledge sharing and a support group and could include a series of education programs/discussion sessions in ‘how to disagree pleasantly’, ‘how to check your privilege’, ‘how to motivate occasionals’, ‘how to maintain momentum’, ‘how to lobby’, ‘how to secure your communications’, etc (the kind of things they don’t teach you in school, only with teachers notes so progressive teachers can do exactly that).
  • These findings and outcomes will then become offerings – a touring training, train the trainer and ambassador program – which can be made available for free and delivered to grassroots campaigners (online and in person, wherever they are based) in many languages and from many cultural perspectives (and in whatever media format they prefer), along with a mentoring program and the open source, secure, networking and support group (helping them to better help themselves and each other).
  • Build on these expanding communities to collectively build a vision of the future which isn’t two party politics and explores alternative systems (anarchosyndicalism and The Commons are my personal preference, for the record), with progressive economists (e.g. Richard Denniss in AU) presenting analysis of things like LETS schemes and basic income models.

Target Audience
I should explain that my target audience here are largely the grassroots organisers as I feel those are the people/collectives who do the most risky work, who typically have the least digital literacy, and who need the most help. I don’t believe it’s worth wasting time trying to change the mindset of the masses and their naysayers. I feel the best strategy here is the same as the media arts strategy I have always worked toward: amplify and support the work of those who already ‘get it’; join the dots in decentralised networks so they know they are not alone and can build better network nodes of their own; support them (and let the technology support them) to make more work, better work, and for that work to reach more eyes and ears. A bespoke injection into one group leads to their own expansion, which brings in new audiences, new collaborators, new works, etc etc as a viral loop. In time our niches will inevitably become the new mainstream (something I actually believe has already happened, but we don’t realise it broadly, yet). My secondary target audience are those who are currently sitting awkwardly on fences. They may have always voted conservatively, but their consciences are poking at them; they know instinctively that what is going on around them is wrong, they just don’t know what they can do about it given the entire electoral & governance system has collapsed into a capitalist, self-serving, mess. They can be brought over with the gentle nurturing we used to apply to non-digital natives; find the appropriate reason for them to care and non-threatening actions to get them started and they’ll become their own ambassadors to their own networks.

I read some US research last year which said that around 80% of people believe that change is possible, but that the same amount believed others don’t believe it. I believe we have reached a tipping point, that more people now are ready for change than ever. I believe it will get worse before it gets better (especially for our most vulnerable, First Nations peoples, POC, refugees, etc) but that it will get better… if only we can harness this new acceptance of change, NOW. What we’ve got is a perception problem. This is why I feel my experience within the arts makes so much sense within all this; Artists deal precisely with perception, it’s what we do.

Collaboration
I mentioned collaborations with activists and artists, researchers, technologists, educators, health workers/carers, legal minds and scientists. My reasoning is that all humanities funding is being slashed in UK and AU, and while US funding works differently your workers in these areas face similar challenges. In the age of austerity we are told to drop these ‘hobbies’ and become independently economically viable or sanitise our messages in exchange for unethical sponsorship. This means there’s a huge group of very pissed off, very intelligent, very passionate and hard working individuals just waiting for somewhere to constructively focus that frustration. Let’s give it to them; let’s see how interdisciplinary thinking and action delivered through platform cooperativism can help agitate and amalgamate our collective noise.

Human-centred technologies
In terms of where we host this information/how we run these decentralised networks, I’m not suggesting that we build a new platform (not unless it genuinely is the only way, which right now I don’t). I do however feel we rely far too heavily on corporate platforms which are closed source, proprietary, and offer next to no privacy/protection. If/when Facebook/Twitter choose/are forced to take down those of us who use those platforms, we will have wasted all that time and energy for all concerned, and we’ll have to start rebuilding all over again. We haven’t got time or energies to invest in the unsustainable. Most technology assumes their users are static – the mobile interfaces of today are far more desktop than mobility oriented, sadly. Many campaigners work on the hoof, out on front line locations or with migrant communities whether climate or war induced. We need a return to mobility thinkings, more playfully designed serious interactions and more humanly-oriented interfaces. We need design for time saving and clarity, and full open integration to still enable messages to reach across the myriad of closed platforms (of course including fb/tw).

Everyone is exhausted, damaged, burned out. We have an intolerably high suicide rate within activism, which is hardly surprising. My belief is that we can better use technology, creatively, to change that. We can be smarter, we can connect the dots and multiply actions more humanly, strategically, and with the greatest viral impact at the moment we need it most, as well as better generating, monitoring and maintaining momentum.

My experience
You may be reading this thinking ‘she’s nuts’… and in a way you’d be right. But I’m the right kind of nuts. These ideas might sound unachievable, but I’ve previously pioneered ways of working and thinking that were considered equally unrealistic. Seventeen years ago I trained a community of elderly housing tenants to produce and run their own Internet TV studio (it’s still going today). Around the same time I co-founded and ran an arts organisation which recognised the potential of the technology you carry in your pocket and empowered artists, researchers, educators and businesses to work in the now ubiquitous mobile content sector. Seven years ago I ran a strategic initiative at Australia’s federal arts funding body which challenged the notion of intellectual property rights in the digital age and created a “Geek in Residence” program, designed to enable holistic cultural shifts within arts organisations by subsidising media arts/technologist placements within arts organisations (and which other communities have since adopted). Five years ago I created a statement within my lifestyle choice which rejects the norm and celebrates otherness and humanness in a world fixated on homogeneity and capitalism. This year I managed to use arts funding to run a social change campaign for Boandik Indigenous Peoples. I’ve traversed sectors and continents and am known and trusted to get shit done whether I’m running a $2.4 million dollar budget or bartering (although the latter is my preference). I don’t believe this is impossible. Difficult, yes. Yet another thing to ask of campaigners, most likely, yes. But not impossible.

Personally, I’m done with complying. I’m done with pretending it will all get better if only we’re just patient and play the game. The game is rigged and we – those with hearts full of anguish instead of greed – are the losers, no matter how well we play. As I mentioned, I’ve been building these ideas largely alone, but this isn’t something one person could achieve alone, nor would a single approach be successful for something like this. No matter what I do, what I learn, or with whom I’m collaborating, I am always going to perceive existence through the lens of an educated white British woman. While I’ve never lived in luxury (nor wanted to) I can never entirely deny my privilege. But if I can’t get rid of it I’m damn well going to do whatever I can to use it to improve the lives of others. This vision is where I’ve got to so far. Some of it I have practised with grassroots communities (http://carefor.country; http://artprotagonists.com), some are things I’d like to explore further. Maybe that’s with you, maybe elsewhere. I’ve tried pitching this to social change fellowships previously and been rejected because my ideas are ‘too big’ or ‘not focusing on one single cause’. As a experimental media artist twenty years ago I received the same responses (even from people who should know better – as with Douglas Rushkoff’s testimonial from the media virus I created for his novel Ecstasy Club in 1997). I was right then and I genuinely believe there’s a lot of good in what I’ve achieved with all this so far. Maybe I’m right this time, too.

Apologies for the extremely long cover letter, but I hope you can appreciate why I felt the need to present it. My CV (one for the arts works and one for social change, sometimes with crossovers) is attached. Should you require references, I have asked <redacted> to respond to requests, but can happily provide contacts for my longer media arts world experiences too.

Wishing you the very best with your selection process, whatever the outcome.
With much admiration and respect for what you do,
Yours sincerely, fee.