Towards Community Art Machines

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Cyberspace is both hardware and software, machines and their networks plus digitized content that rides or will ride upon them.
Mike Mosher

Issue #18, January 1995


Will cyberspace transform the arts? Can it dismantle the isolation (into art ghettos called galleries and museums) and commercialization, the irrelevance to daily life of these essential human expressions? The dematerialization of art — whether online or on easily-replicable floppy disk — offers some hope.

Cyberspace — in its broadest sense, embracing both the vessel and its contents — is both hardware and software, machines and their networks plus digitized content that rides or will ride upon them. It's a world of great literary, artistic and expressive potential, where the formal boundaries between genres and forms shift and tend to dissolve into binary soup, turning literature into fine art into video games into education into software applications into advertisement.

Meanwhile I define 'community arts' as art removed from the present commercial Art World and market systems, not commodified objects but contextualized specific, sited group expression. If such art is by an individual, it is usually with the community's input or cognizance of its issues. It heals the split between art and the general populace that deliberate investment strategies have brought about, bringing the arts back to something approaching their rich significance in previous societies. Community arts are usually content driven, stories of real people and particularities; in our society that means admitting race, ethnicity and class. But all of the most radical artistic, aesthetic traditions can be applied to this ethic, for realism is a matter of content rather than form. Beyond multiethnic content occupying traditional media (paintings, cinema), some forms community arts can take are neighborhood celebrations, community murals, print media (often free) and public access television. Although these community arts are perhaps America's richest and most spiritual tradition, they have remained too separate from the discourse of cyberspace. However, each of these community-friendly media, rooted in their contexts, contain vital seeds and shoots of this traditions reclamation or responsible growth.

Awed by its immensity, I feel I've insufficiently explored cyberspace, too little browsed and turned World Wide Web (WWW) pages, in no small part because my own telecommunications are often on my own dime rather than a university's or corporation's. Yet artistically I have seen little activity that transcends the middle-class white collegiate arts of Rock music, punkish eccentricity (the computer scientist George Goble's WWW url http://ghg.ecn.purdue.edu/ featuring photos, downloadable audio and MPEG video of the melting of a steel barbecue grill by application of liquid oxygen), or the increasing glut of commercial pages. Its culture is all too transparently commercial, as in the Absolut Gallery of vodka ad art or _Hot Wired_, where each page displays corporate logos. Where supposedly disinterested culture does exist, it replicates old forms; ARTnet boasts that the work displayed is 'chosen by a panel of experts in their field' from among submissions.

Where are the community arts of cyberspace?

Its Present Communities

Cyberspace remains all to much a white loaf unleavened by ethnicity. Racism, after all, can be hated by a white from a selfish, personal viewpoint — I favor a public space which feet can carry me through, and racism thus deprives me (as does class structure) in that I can't wander any neighborhood and get to know anyone without encountering the preconditions of exploitation and expectations.

Yet many prefer their ethnic diversity in the safety of the virtual, the Potemkin Village of the desktop neighborhood, feel-good anthropological CD-ROMs with titles like 'One Tribe', carrying on the depoliticized tradition of Edward Steichen's 1950s photo exhibit 'The Family of Man'. Borrowed ethnicity, however respectful, inevitably has different meanings in the work of white artists. When Brenda Laurel and collaborators used Native American glyphic motifs as found on nearby mountains in 'Placeholder', a participatory virtual reality environment temporarily installed at the Banff Arts Center in 1993, their appropriateness were questioned not by Native Americans but by white administrators.

Few instances of significant ethnic art exist online or onscreen. Commercial interactive CD-ROMs that feature C & C Music Factory (offering reassembly of their music videos) or music and imagery of the musician formerly-called Prince, seem to do badly in the marketplace because their audience is not primarily computer software purchasers. Perhaps it's because theirs is not music that makes you want to sit in front of a computer. But contrast the CD-ROMs' tepid reception to pirated copies of the performers' cassettes circulating on the boombox market, and the issues appear economic rather than aesthetic.

Electronic art that confronts issues of racism, sexism and ethnicity is usually the work of artists with ties to colleges or the technology industry, such as interactive installations by Colette Gaiter in Minnesota and Lucia Grossberger Morales in Northern California. This work is making inroads into non-art settings — though often middle-class, like technical conferences, for you just can't leave a computer out on urban streets. The World Wide Web has power and memory requirements that rule out most older, low-end machines, though a BBS exhibiting digital Native American artwork was in place on a FidoNet node in Russell County, Montana as early as 1991.

Even with the equalizing 'Pax ASCII' of text, there is a paucity of 'ethnic spaces' online, rare exceptions being the University of Texas' Folklore Archive which contains bilingual Mexican-American writings. However, the Women Writers' Project at Brown University contains some nonwhite writers of the English Commonwealth.

Activist Forms

Will political activism act as a force in the growth and development of cyberspace? Brazilian activists used the Internet to quickly publicize internationally the 1988 death of Chico Mendes, relying on it to publicize continued threats while fearing its impending privatization. In the United States the Net bristles with talk of middle-class 'good government' reform, its messages wearing the equalizing but ostensibly middle-class, 'information worker' mask of ASCII. In 1992 Ross Perot called for an 'electronic democracy' but seemed restricted in his vision to one offering choices between answers which his office would craft. At the 1994 Alliance for Community Media Far West Conference, computer columnist-libertarian activist Jim Warren boasted of getting a California State Legislature bill tabled with a day-long concerted E-mail effort to targeted legislators over the Internet from his Woodside home.

The traditions of computer scientists both in industry and universities include the free exchange of software. The Internet was for years a realm in which only computer scientists communicated among themselves. Though originally funded, like much computer science in America, by the military, it prides itself on unfettered interpersonal communication. Celebrated by its proponents as a contemporary pillar and defender of civil liberties, it still reflects the prejudices of the ethnic and class strata from which most scientists emerge. This is the group evoking a Village Common of culture, open for all to graze, the perpetual-motion economics of software through piracy and its ethic that 'information wants to be free'. This theoretical basis springs from a protected university or fraternal corporate environment; outside of theory, this often results in the Big (corporation/institution) taking from the Small.

A campaign was widely circulated electronically in support of the nondiscriminatory sexual preference policies of Apple Computer, Inc. to counter the letter-writing campaign instigated by a TV preacher to get them repealed. _MONDO 2000_ has featured Gay teens who network online. Much of the Internet might be said to display the liberalism of the classroom, with occasional patches of serious examination and discussion of economic and imperialist issues.

Visual Art Models/Metaphors

Community murals are relevant to cyberspace, because they are contextualized site-specific visual histories that have flourished most prominently in Latino and Black neighborhoods and often the outgrowth of collective painting processes.

A lesson from the struggles of community murals illustrate how owners and inhabitants (a.k.a. tenants) have differing notions of a shared space. 'Neighborhood revitalization' committees should be natural allies of community muralists, yet it was soon apparent that the 'revitalizers' (often architects and landlords) thought of neighborhoods as collections of buildings rather than as an assembly of people or peoples. Still these same neighborhoods spontaneously coalesced at times into activist groups to call attention to exploitative housing practices and code violations. One group in San Francisco called attention to a gaping pit left from an immolated hotel using graffiti, poetry readings and wall-sized projections (including WANTED! posters of notorious landlords) to call attention to neighborhood housing issues. Free-floating imagery, appearing unexpectedly and giving form to the unexpressed...evanescent and dematerialized works perhaps forshadowing similar activist art in cyberspace. I look forward to activist arts critical, didactic and participatory museums as much as I do to cyberspace's virtual worlds' as much as to its street parties.

Cyberspace is narrative, and by sharing its stories it can and must be a place for the warm expression of community. Its arts shall be rich mansions of the world's diverse communities, each corridor ringing with their voices. Written forms of communication already have models of community expression. There is a decommodified aspect to much community literature in print, small press books, neighborhood papers (often free, supported by local advertisers), cheap comix and 'zines, which sprang out of the grass-roots activism of the 1960s and '70s, boosted by the spread of desktop publishing technology in the '80s; at best democratizing 'Freedom of the Press to he who owns one' to personal computer users. Yet this tradition extends to efforts in Photocopy art, Mail Art, the Networker movement — all promulgate cheaply mass-produced imagery, often distributed to unknown recipients with an ethic of giftgiving rather than exhibition of a precious object.

Cyberspace in 1995 is being constructed as a western cultural space even as it moves from text to visual hypermedia systems. AT&T Network Systems product development VP Robert Stanzione's waxed poetic in _Fortune_ magazine on the impending 'new age, where visual communication will be as ubiquitous as voice communication is today'. The dialectic between cool (literary) and hot (audio) media that Marshall McCluhan set up in _Understanding Media_ may instruct here: so what if cyberspace uses different paradigms, speech and sound? Gamelan, smoke signals, talking drums? These are computer-human interface issues, a field as much cultural as technical. English-Only pundits lament fastfood restaurants' cash registers' visual icons as promoters of illiteracy; I see them as a successful interface for the international, fluid populations living under late capitalism.

Electronic Media Traditions

Finally, there is the tradition that should be nurtured within cyberspace to a much greater degree: community arts. Those to be examined include public access television, where twenty years of minority and non-mainstream voices have cablecast electronically, protected by local law. Despite being stereotyped as 'Wayne's World' metalheads (though uncensored youth having access to media remains exciting to me), public access television has managed government-supported electronic media reflecting diverse communities for two decades. The Cable Act of 1974 allowed municipalities to charge cable TV companies access fees, and many of them use a portion of access fees to support public access, educational and government channels.

Jim Warren has pointed out the limitations of today's public access television and community radio as compared to the Internet. Both are usually a unidirectional voice for people chosen to speak by those who control the means of production. Both require that their presenters be present in the studio and that recipients tune in at a particular moment. Both thereby require passivity on the part of those recipients. This explains why community radio is enjoyed by commuters. For access to government information he proposes computer-based wire-, cable-and wireless civic networks.

Cable television sees big money in cyberspace, carrying over to it cable's market-segmented range of offerings, Pay-per-View movies and special events, and especially those of Home Shopping Channel commerce; telecommunications companies seemingly share the same vision. A Pacific Bell representative enraged a meeting of Bay Area public access advocates by forgetting his audience and crowing proudly that they'd build a '500 channel shopping mall' — not traditionally the most democratic place and protector of free speech. The metaphor was repeated recently by John Donoghue of MCI, 'This isn't a strip mall we're putting on the Internet. We're opening the Mall of America.'

The telecommunications industry believes the 'killer app', a much-desired application that will pay for broadband communications capabilities is video dialtone, or video downloadable upon demand. Its unimaginative, top-down and centralized metaphor is the only one many in the industry know, in the tradition of Henry Ford's 'any color as long as it's black' for the Model T. _Inter@ctive Week_'s 1994 survey shows that interactivity could induce half of the 36 million non-cable TV households in America to subscribe. Yet John Malone, chief executive of TCI, the largest cable operator, suspects customers wouldn't pay enough for movies to support building of the system; _Macworld_'s survey in 1994 supports his view. Industry also avoids any committment to public infrastructure. A large industry lobbying effort was brought to bear against Senate Bill 1822 in 1993, which mandated public access but was hazy on details of implementation. A bill by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii called for 10 to 20 % of bandwidth to be set aside for nonprofit uses and also failed to pass. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's think-tanks have advised him to use the term 'cyberspace' rather than metaphors of the 'information highway', too evocative of public works. Meanwhile the White House, moderate Republicans of the curiously-named Democratic Party, gives lip service to the idea of universal access, much as their predecessor Richard Nixon did to guaranteed annual wage and universal health coverage. It remains to be seen if their words will turn into action.

It will take much creativity as well as concerted political activism on the part of artists and authors, scholars and citizens to see that cyberspace develops into an inclusive Communications Freeway, not arid and centralized Pay-per-View Consumertainments. This work must be done continually, to make cyberspace our space.

Towards Community Art Machines

But as an artist, what do I want?

An arena for Virtual Squaredances where schoolchildren and senior citizens in different parts of town meet to dance together onscreen. Where cool footage arrives online daily: of one friend's performance piece in Michigan, a music video from a friend in the Ivory Coast and a short, animated interactive poem from another one in Colorado, that I then combine with some footage off of CNN to make a political point, colorize and title on my own home technology, then shoot back over the Net to friends in Manhattan, Seattle and New Hampshire until it resides publicly for viewing in an accessible well-labeled space. To build online imagery-rich interactive multi-participant 'muralworlds', virtual galleries of hot visuals clickable for more. In other words, a tool of expression, a critical weapon...not a better place to shop and spend money. Where after putting my work upon the Net, a farmer in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica/a scientist in Svalbard/a child in Bahia/a nurse in Hong Kong respond to it in a way I hadn't expected, and tell me. If you want more democratic (and hence, more interesting) arts in cyberspace the only forseeable solution is more access and ubiquity. To adapt the nuclear power industry's utopian motto of the 1950s, 'Art Too Cheap to Meter', which we are increasingly finding the technology to create. Works not shaped by buying and selling, but art with the immaterial condition of music or a poem.

I always return to community murals as the most challenging result of the interface between individual artist and politics at several levels (street, local, often international) and hope to see this artform adapted to cyberspace. A Nigerian in California sent me the electronic newsletter, culled from BBC and various servers, which circulates among his community of students and exiles, making ironic use of better telecommunications infrastructure than their undercapitalized homeland's. Perhaps similar exiles could assemble an online visual artwork, created with the porous and dynamic process that insures the best possible mural on a wall, containing pointers to its own immediately-accessible historical and contextualizing information.

Cyberspace is not utopia; by praising it as such we only distance ourselves from critical engagement in its development. Cyberspace in 1995 is an elite, institutional, gentlemen's space charging a high entrance fee of affiliation or cash. Access must be universal in order to let our particularity flourish. Yet while others rightly point out the hegemonic American 'whiteness' of much of its space, nowhere is that irrevocably dictated in its technology itself. Yet I remain optimistic. The glass is not half-empty, it's half-full. It is still a developing world, but one whose development must be germane and useful to all, for much of 'real' society will come to shape itself around it.

Cyberspace — in the form of the Net, WWW and electronic files — violates capital's previous demands on time. If one of the first things given up under wage slavery was freedom to control one's own organic daily schedule, cyberspace facilitates an easy 24-hour mood-driven reading and answering of electronic correspondence that doesn't interrupt thought in the manner of the telephone (the aristocratic painter Edgar Degas, when first shown a phone, replied 'You mean it rings its bell, and I answer it...like a servant?)

Cyberspace violates previous conceptions of space. The Macintosh on my desk can access a great library, or theoretically muster many hands to design a detailed and resonant mural environment. Currently it amplifies communication between my own network of friends and colleagues (especially when online courtesy of a university or workplace), admittedly an existing community which earlier stayed in touch by more traditional media.

When dematerialized means de-commodified the real transformation will take place. Then Cyberspace will dissolve present standards of class, race and empire.

Mountain View, CA
1/14/95


Thanks to Chrysanthe Johnson-Mosher and Joe Lockard for informational and editorial contributions to this paper.


Mike Mosher teaches classes in computer art, animation, and human-interface design in the Inter-Arts Center and the Multimedia Studies program at San Francisco State University. He was the last CETA-funded muralist for the City of San Francisco 1980-81.

Copyright © by Mike Mosher 1995. All rights reserved.

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