‘Edge of Art’ authors to appear

On Friday, the Long Now Foundation — the group devoted to thinking about things ten thousand years in the future — is sponsoring another in their series of “seminars.” This one’s with Jon Ippolito and Joline Blais, the founders of a media lab at the University of Maine and the authors of a book called At the Edge of Art.

On Tuesday night, I spoke by phone with Ippolito about one small aspect of their work.

Jon Ippolito: It used to be that, for most of the 20th C, we moved from definitions of art that had to do with beauty or sublimity or religious meaning to a definition that said: if someone is an artist and they say they’re making art — or particularly if they put it in a gallery where it’s viewed on a pedestal, then it’s automatically art. Art was a very self-conscious activity — self-absorbed, some would say. But in a world united by global electronic networks, we — Joline and I — believe art has burst out of that white cube and is cropping up in all kinds of places, even the most unlikely.

Are you talking about what’s sometimes called outsider art, or street art, by people who aren’t trained as artists but who are trying to express themselves artistically in some way?

That’s one example; we don’t actually speak too much about so-called outsider art in our book, but there always have been people who have made work that defies categorization but has a strong hold on the senses and on people who have had the open mind to look at it. When we have the internet, people can recognize works in their backyard by people who don’t necessarily claim to be artists and have no institutional affiliation or acknowledgement. And those works can be appreciated by an audience without having to go through the hoops of the museum world. Graffiti artists, street activists, artificial life software engineers, internet artists, independent game designers.

In our teaching at the University of Maine’s media program — in a lab called Still Water — we have built tools to help students learn by remixing. We live in a culture of the mashup and appropriation, if you want to use that word. But rarely is that kind of sharing — which we view as so critical to creativity in the age of the internet — encouraged by schools. When you’re in the 4th grade you’ve got Show and Tell; by the time you’re in the 9th grade, it’s all about Hide and Shush. You’re supposed to keep your eyes on your own paper; everyone’s worried about plagiarism and piracy. Joline and I founded Still Water on the principle that we should go with the flow and explore ways that those kinds of sharing media could supercharge the creative process.

How do you encourage the sharing of media?

For example, teachers get angry when students open laptops in class to IM their friends, or check their Facebook accounts, or thumb someone a text message under the desk with their cellphone, yet those tools were designed specifically — by the greatest engineering minds of our age — for the purpose of sharing information. The web was created by a physicist at CERN who wanted ways to promote the circulation of scientific information. So why are we censoring our students and preventing them from using the tools that our brightest research minds created specifically to encourage learning?

I have a class right now in variable media, which is a term that’s similar to participatory media — the final projects have required a student to generate an idea, create a work based on another student’s idea, and then for the final project create a work combining two or more other students’ projects. So the permutations and combinations multiply exponentially, and you end up with a project that may derive from, in one case, eight different student projects. And we can draw — via an architecture called The Pool, an online environment for sharing art, code and text, which allows us to track the influences that one student has on another, in a way that encourages, not a hit and run mashup where there’s no visible connection back to the original author, but rather responsible reuse where you can track the genealogy of an idea.

What is the concept of “responsible reuse”?

It doesn’t mean obeisance to a corporate copyright or some kind of moral certainty. Instead it means respecting and acknowledging the social connections necessary for sustainable creativity. So when someone takes an mp3 and shares it on a file sharing network, I’m less concerned about the fact that this file is being duplicated on hard drives around the world — that, I think, is a good thing. What I think is not so good is that you don’t know whose hard drives it’s being duplicated on. So although you shared that mp3 openly, there’s a missed opportunity for social contact. Joline, in particular, works with indigenous cultures and studies their forms of creativity. And in many of those cultures, such as in the Wampanoag cultures of the Northeast, art is a force for connecting people rather than a production of objects to be sold on the auction block. So if I make a music file and put it on my website, and other people download it without me knowing who they are or how they will use it, it’s a profoundly solitary endeavor, and misses what we think is the point of sharing culture.

We designed The Pool with students at the University of Maine — notably John Bell — so that it would record reviews of projects as well as their creation. When you go to The Pool you see a graph of each of the projects according to how well it’s been received and how many people have reviewed it. We can, in a visual way, via this graph, rank and compare projects that have been generated on their own, compared with projects that have multiple influences and collaborators. It gives us a way to measure these effects, beneficial or detrimental, of collaboration and shared influence.

What are those effects? What are you looking for?

The social connection is easy to see. If you pick a project that you suspect or you read has multiple influences, you can click on a kind of relationship map that draws a family tree of that project. And even if the project itself stinks, if it inspired ten different projects, some of which are good, it had a very useful social effect. We’ve also built an interface that is more of a social network that draws relationships between people rather than between works. (I can see people who are) collaborators of my collaborators. This is a strong way of identifying people that I might want to know. But — as opposed to something like Facebook and Friendster — I must have collaborated with one of those people in order to plug into that network. The point is that you’ve got knowledge of those people. Maybe you did a video together or made a website; you worked on it with them and it made its way into The Pool, and these versions are evaluated by other members. This is a bottom-up approach. The Pool doesn’t have an expert deciding; it’s the community that decides.

The presentation by Ippolito and Joline Blais is on Friday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 pm. Click here for location and other information.

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