Thursday 12 May 2011

Ruth Catlow: Internet interventions

Image by courtesy of Furtherfield

Networks are disrupting our society. They offer new opportunities, while bringing age-old issues into sharper focus. If networks offer us a chance to engage and connect with others in order to crystallise thinking, the devices that provide a connection to them can be ecologically unpleasant. According to Ruth Catlow, we are nowhere near a harmonious resolution to these problems – even though we can almost feel them within our grasp.

Catlow is the co-founder and co-director of Furtherfield, a digital community of co-creators that are interested in the intersection between art and technology, complimented by the Furtherfield Gallery in north London, a space dedicated to the exhibition and performance of work. Underpinning the organisation is a creative approach which is inspired by the metaphors and material media of networks within art.

The discursive culture within Furtherfield is substantial and important. Many artists from an online community of around 15,000 collaborate with the organisation each year. The behaviours within it, and within Furtherfield, are largely non-hierarchical: its motto is DIWO, Do It With Others. It requires Catlow and her team to be constantly considering new systems of co-operation, which in themselves may require new models of operation and sustainability.

Furtherfield came from the development of critical approaches to digital and media art in the mid-1990s. These thinkers and artists saw networks as a space: one that opened up new ways for them to produce work, and to intervene in existing processes, particularly given the democratic nature of the Internet. As Catlow says, "... it is the old Brechtian idea that art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it. If you put art and technology together, then that really makes sense. Art and technology can shape society, shape people's thinking, and can form a 'group imaginary'."

In recent years, the organisation has been running an informal programme around issues of digital culture, including its relationship with, and impact on, the environment. It was decided by Catlow and her team that this programme, including exhibitions and artistic work featuring imaginary engagements with issues of technology and the environment, should also take the form of an event.

Re-rooting Digital Culture is designed to bring a wide variety of artistic, technological and scientific thinkers and practitioners together in order to work through some of the more pressing environmental issues that face us as a society. If our acquisition and use of silicon-based technology is effectively based on a model derived from the Industrial Revolution, then there needs to be some deep and fundamental thinking and action in place to move society even slightly away from that: ergo, re-rooting.

The ideas of an environmental stewardship driven by consumers remain hard to deliver. The supposed savings that we were meant to be achieving through concepts such as the paperless office and commute-free working have been countered by the purchase of objects, such as LCD TVs, which require greater amounts of energy than their preceding technologies. Add in the detritus of old mobiles, chargers and the refill reams for laser printers, then in an environmental context, the "digital age" is less of a new phenomenon, and more of a rehash of what has been happening in the past 150 years. Catlow is adamant – as are many others - that the way in which we perceive, consume, and use technological and digital devices has to change in order for society to improve its ecological and environmental standing over the next 150 years and beyond.


A current project is Zero Dollar Laptop, recycling existing hardware with a ready-made deployment of free and Open Source software. It is also designed to facilitate a more creative, expressive relationship with the Internet from project participants. Catlow's view is that the project is based on an understanding that technology is at the vanguard of consumerism, as well as being at the more troublesome end of capitalism. The "upgrade culture" can leave discarded devices in cupboards and skips, rather than in the hands of people that can make genuine use from them. Although there are many successful re-use projects such as this, it is Zero Dollar Laptop that provides an additional challenge on the part of the recipient of the refreshed device, around self-perception in Internet use. The determination of schemes such as this to be successful, is evident. "When we first got started with Furtherfield, I was far more optimistic and Utopian than I am now. I don't think that the technology will help us to make the changes. There are far more intractable problems, and sometimes technology is part of the problem."

Catlow gives the story of how teenagers in north London view the environmental impact of their behaviour, captured during an Zero Dollar Laptop event. Even though the group clearly displayed a responsibility towards their community, they had not learned a great deal about climate change; they did not really think about it; and did not consider themselves as able to do anything about it. These findings may surprise and sadden in equal measure.


Root causes

Although much of Furtherfield's work and projects at least ask questions about current socio-political questions – and often intervening in them, the speakers at Re-rooting Digital Culture are not antagonistic to capitalism per se. Rather, they seem to recognise that the prevalence of the update culture creates bigger and longer-term problems, and that alternatives need pursuing. With the current model, a mixed economy of free and commercial product, " can still end up all going down the pan, or you can have a mixed economy that starts to mitigate against some of the problematic areas of infinite growth. I don't think that, just on its own, a mixed economy of free and permissive creation will solve it."

Another project from Furtherfield, We Won't Fly For Art, is to be presented by Catlow at the event. Published as a manifesto, it was in response to a Gustav Metzker artwork, Reduce Art Flights. Metzker's argument was based on an assumption of the art world being a glitzy, Grand Tour-esque world, with artist attendance of biennials and exhibitions being a measure of their status. Supporting We Won't Fly For Art was an infrastructural intervention, with artists using PledgeBank to proclaim that they will not fly for 6 months. Combining networked thinking and engagement with environmental issues is eminently logical, delivering powerful and creative messaging, interaction and the ability to drive participation through scale.

Furtherfield continues to offer new angles on received and perceived thinking. As arts funding starts to put digital creativity at risk, Catlow is adamant that, as digital media becomes more sophisticated and more connected, this is a space that should build, not shrink. "What gets missed out is how much value there is in a much more networked, lateral, thinking approach that isn't just about markets, but is pumping value into the communities that are engaged with it - that doesn't fit into the existing model of metrics. The value of this approach is missed."


Ruth Catlow is co-founder and co-director of FurtherfieldRe-rooting Digital Culture takes place on Friday 13 May at the University of Westminster.

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