node.london - states of interdependence

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A collaborative text written by Marc Garrett and Ruth Catlow, for "Media Mutandis: A Node.London Reader" (to be published in February 2006)

There is a Sufi fable in which a group of foreigners sit at breakfast, excitedly discussing their previous night’s exploration. One starts saying “…and what about that great beast we came across in the darkest part of the Jungle? It was like a massive, rough wall.” The others look perplexed. “No it wasn’t!” says one, “It was some kind of python”. “Yeah…” another half-agrees, “…but it also had powerful wings”. The shortest of the group looks bemused- “well it felt like a tree trunk to me.”

This fable aptly illustrates many aspects of the NODE.London experience. The name, which stands for Networked Open Distributed Events in London [1], indicates the open, lateral structure adopted to develop a season of media arts. It is intentionally extensible, suggesting possible future NODE(s).Rio, .Moscow, .Mumbai etc. As participants/instigators in the project’s ongoing conceptualization and praxis, we are just two individuals positioned on the interlaced, scale-free networks of NODE.L (more on these later). As such, our descriptions of this collectively authored project are inevitably incomplete and contestable, with a complete picture emerging only in negotiation with others.

At time of writing we are between the two key milestone events of NODE.L: October’s ‘Open Season’ of conferences (with its focus on media activism) and the Season of Media Arts, planned for March 2006 (which will feature distributed media arts projects, exhibitions and events). Through these events NODE.L offers a rare chance to identify shared purposes, philosophies, resources (such as licenses and tools for knowledge sharing) and common vocabularies between the media arts and tech-orientated, media activist communities.

As artists and co-directors of the online net art group, Furtherfield.org, which began in 1997, and co-curators of the physical space called HTTP [House of Technologically Termed Praxis] in North London, which opened in 2004, we work to build our own contexts as alternatives to those already provided by the immutable, hierarchical structures of art world institutions. And it seems that there are many others with a similar drive in the areas of art practice, independent publishing and open source software development. In this way of working, issues of origination and ownership of ideas and projects are often much more fluid than those found in more traditional institutions. In common with Open Source software developers, as often as we instigate new participatory artworks, we contribute to existing works started by other people.

We joined NODE.L as Voluntary Organisers (VOs) in April 2005. By this stage the Arts Council grant had been won, the first tools and preliminary ground-rules of organisation and interaction had been set, a working budget established and people from an array of backgrounds and experiences in media arts were gathered around the table, ostensibly to set a date for a festival and to come to a decision about curatorial policy. The project initiators enthusiastically communicated the vision of the project and we identified opportunities for discourse and collaboration. We were also able to discern the potential for interlinking and raising the profile of an unusually diverse programme of activities and projects from a range of cultural perspectives. From presentations of informal and experimental artistic research projects, to fully realized, complex artworks with associated communities of participation. The decision not to commission new work but instead, to raise the visibility of existing activities, was contentious but one that we supported, in that it made scant resources usefully available to a wider range of groups already doing interesting work at grass roots level.

NODE.L is an experiment in structures and tools of cooperation as invented or adapted by artists, activists and technologists, many (but not all) of whom are committed to ideas of social change through their practice. Aside from a very able project co-coordinator who was appointed in July, the entire project is run by Voluntary Organisers (VOs). Looking back, the most fundamentally challenging pre-established rule was that of consensual management - no voting and no hierarchy to take the strain (and responsibility) of decisions. We talked till we agreed and in a meeting with 30 people this could take some time. Now remember those poor friends in the Sufi fable.

In the last six months this decision-making process has necessarily evolved to incorporate additional self-assigned subgroups, with responsibility for various tasks such as PR, finance and partnerships. The public facing NODE.L wiki and forum [2], combined with monthly VO meetings, facilitates collaborative working within these groups, supporting an experiment in transparent organisation. This process throws up many hot potato issues that are beyond the scope of this text but which would benefit from careful evaluation after March. Jo Freeman’s seminal text, The Tyranny of Structurelessness [3], written in the context of 1970’s Feminist, consciousness-raising meetings, was much quoted at NODE.L meetings to provide an insight into some of the limitations of undifferentiated lateral structures of organisation.

Before joining NODE.L, we were not aware of how many other people in London were involved in creating and exhibiting media artwork, that deployed electronic or digital technologies, and that were exploring art in a socio-political context. In June, the idea of “Seed Nodes” (now just called Nodes)[4] was born. This idea was a cross between an earlier Wireless London [5] concept of a ‘Node in Every Code’ (in which London’s free wireless hot-spots could be mapped) and the popular annual Open House [6] scheme (in which people open the doors of their homes to an architecturally curious public).

With very small amounts of ‘seed money’, geographically and culturally diverse arts venues and organisations (alternative, independent, publicly funded, and commercial) act as hubs (Nodes) for activities in their localities. Nodes connect with each other to provide opportunities for sharing resources such as printers and physical spaces (for events, presentations and exhibitions), whilst NODE.L provides technical expertise and the benefits of a centralised (and distributed) PR machine. It is intended that through this structure, Nodes promote ongoing connections within their local communities whilst at the same time developing productive links and healthy interdependencies with clusters of other media-arts venues and practitioners in what was previously a scattered and cliquey community with low visibility (often even to itself).

Scale-free networks such as the network of Nodes are constantly adopted by NODE.L’s to facilitate the emergence of a grass roots media arts culture in London and in building its own organisational and communication structure. The Internet is a scale-free network. Scale-free networks are described by scientists as maintaining their levels of connectivity regardless of their size. They do this by linking small ‘clusters’ of locally networked nodes to more massively linked hubs, which are in turn connected to each other. Theoretically this allows one to link from one node on a local cluster to another distant, local node with just a couple of steps through the hubs. This creates the “small world” phenomena whereby anyone on the network is felt to be close to any other as well as to the centre.

Potentially, the March season offers a broad representation, making visible an otherwise impossibly diverse and unpredictable ecology of sprouting media arts activities. If NODE.L survives beyond this first year it will be interesting to compare the outcomes of this collective endeavour with other, grander, centrally organized media arts fairs and the more competitive festivals such as Transmediale, ISEA and Ars Electronica.

As part of NODE.L Furtherfield/HTTP will host Open Vice/Virtue: the Online Art Context. This is an exhibition and public art production space, featuring real-time, online collaboration and interventions in Haringey's public and private spaces through the software artworks of American artist Andy Deck’s ‘Imprimatur‘ and ‘Glyphiti’. Through this we wanted to highlight the work of an artist who consciously crosses the art-tech divide in his own work with a strong socio-political consciousness. His work is conceptual, representational and instrumental. ”A hybrid of telecommunication software and concept art focused on the aesthetics and politics of collaborative media.” [7].

The NODE.L “seed funding” is making it possible for us to buy a laser printer with which to print collaboratively produced posters and to embed the project in our local community with workshops and open publishing sessions. Visitors can use the Imprimatur ‘groupware’ to create their own posters in collaboration with their online counterparts and launch a personal poster campaign based on their own social and political concerns. Posters can then circulate beyond the gallery walls to appear in the streets, schools, libraries kitchens and bedrooms. This DIY approach revives the tradition of poster-making as a medium of mass communication and persuasion developed during the 20th century. Andy Deck’s work shares a common purpose with NODE.L’s and ours; to explore to what extent, those who view and interact with work are able to become “co-producers in a network, rather than ‘audience’ “[8].

Although so far our involvement seems to have worked well for our own small group, the organisational model of NODE.L, so inspired by the scale-free networks of the Internet, is not without its lapses in egalitarianism, transparency and efficiency. And again returning to the science of these networks we shouldn’t be surprised to see ‘power laws’ at work [9]. Combined with an organisational commitment to evolving cooperative processes they throw up the following issues:
- Problems of apportioning credit or remuneration for a few, very dedicated VOs and conversely, vulnerability to the behaviour of some participants who may consistently take more out of the system than they put back in.
- Comparative inefficiency of the consensual management process makes meaningful engagement impossible for some interested parties.
- Some of the more established institutions have difficulty with NODE.L timelines in the context of their own management systems.
- Participants need to have a realistic sense of their own capacity or else there needs to be a strong (and uncommonly rigorous) culture of peer assessment and critique in place, when particular tasks are to be accomplished.
- Much work needs to be done to establish and prove common vocabularies between workers in different fields such as artists and programmers.

And once again we return to the explorers in our Sufi fable. In spite of volunteers’ confidence in their own good faith, patience and tolerant attitudes, we can often find ourselves in fractious dialogue with each other. It’s stressful to imagine that you may have been talking at crossed purposes, at length with a co-worker. You fear that when the light goes up you will find yourself on your own, triumphantly clutching at a tree-trunk, when everyone else is gathered around an altogether different beast. But perhaps this is the explorer’s lot.

We perceive NODE.L to be a fluid, permeable programme and a contemporary work of socially engaged Art/Tech, in that it represents a complex intersection of at least two previously separate human networks of specialisation. We anticipate that with the nurturing of a healthy, critical interdependency, a multivalent and informed vision of London media arts will emerge and come into focus.

Notes and references: -
[1] The name NODE.L was conceived by Kelli Dipple (artist, NODE.L Voluntary Organiser and Tate Webcasting Curator) as a welcome alternative to the original working title SMAL (Season of Media Arts in London).
[2] http://smal.omweb.org/modules/wakka/HomePage
[3] Jo Freeman The Tyranny of Structurelessness, 1970 http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm
[4]More recently Seed Nodes have been renamed “Nodes” as it was becoming confusing to describe as “Seeds” the rising number of well-established and long-running London institutions that are starting to join NODE.L.
[5] http://wirelesslondon.info/
[6] http://www.londonopenhouse.org/
[7] http://www.artcontext.com/crit/essays/transmedia/
[8] http://smal.omweb.org/modules/wakka/HowNodelWorks
[9] Power laws where commonly 20% of participants could be expected to be found doing 80% of the work, etc. see Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, 2002, Perseus Publishing

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