A CONTEXT MAP OF VisitorsStudio

VisitorsStudio is a Media Art project, in that it is “art through and with electronic digital media... a hybrid of electronically generated images, sounds, machine processes and possibilities for interaction”[1]. In addition to this definition by media, and equally important to an understanding of the VisitorsStudio project, is how it corresponds with processes, and practices developed by an earlier generation of artists associated with the Fluxus movement who worked with mail art, happenings, performance, art-activism and live art. This text describes some of these connections with past works and then positions VisitorsStudio within the thriving territory of real-time art, software art, net art and participative and collaborative expression in contemporary ‘remix culture’.

The mail art projects of the 70s and 80s demonstrated Fluxus artists’ common disregard for the distinctions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and a disdain for what they saw as the elitist gate-keeping of the ‘high’ art world. They often took the form of themed, ‘open calls’, in which all submissions were exhibited and catalogued. Like mail art, VisitorsStudio is concerned with open communication, between artists “trying to develop within an ever increasing and complex cultural milieu.”[2] Mail art was not about objects going through the mail, “but artists establishing direct contact with other artists, sharing ideas and experiences all over the world” [3]. And the communication was not just between artists but would also take the form of message relays (passing messages along a chain of correspondents) and communiqués to non-art audiences. These strategies find parallels with the VisitorsStudio project[4] as a contemporary exploration of collective, real-time expression facilitated by the distributed, global networks of the Internet.

In the 1980s artists’ TV projects such as Paper Tiger TV and Deep Dish TV in the US and others across Europe, claimed public access cable TV as their medium. Coinciding with the availability of affordable video cameras these independent, decentralized public art TV networks mobilised people to make their own media, rather than being passive consumers of centrally constructed programming. They attempted to democratize the media by facilitating people to people communication. Artistic programming turned the themes and aesthetics of commercial TV on their head and activated the production of media around a proliferation of local issues expressed by a range of marginalized communities, as well as activist projects such as the Gulf Crisis TV Project in the early 1990s. The concerns of these projects can be traced in VisitorsStudio as well as in a range of contemporary open, distributed internet TV projects initiated and run by artists’ groups such as Super Channel and Deptford TV.

VisitorsStudio is a networked, many to many, real-time art project “created and distributed live in real-time.”[5] Early real-time arts tended to focus on the image as place[6] and created contexts for human presence and interaction across geographically remote locations. In their classic 1980s art-telecommunication project Hole in Space, Kit Galloway and Sherry Rabinovitz installed big screens connected via satellite (with cameras, microphones and speakers) in two public spaces in Los Angeles and New York. With works such as these, audiences determined their use and their meaning as they became aware of them over the duration of the work. In common with the happenings of the 60s and 70s, the audience played a part in creating the work. In recent years NonTVTV Station[7], commissioned an ambitious series of always-on, month long, real-time arts projects. The challenges of this medium gave rise to popularly accessible projects such as My Life as a Rat by Illona Walin Huss, in which rats became the subjects of faux-Reality-TV as they munched their way through an eerie miniature replica of the artists own flat, complete with a clock and a tiny TV synchronized to ‘real-world’ broadcast. At the other end of the spectrum artists monitored and broadcast audio-visualisations of activity taking place at the sub atomic level and others created algorithms to generate an ambient and abstract audio-visual transmission from the changing patterns of shadows on the walls of the studio. These were broadcast point-to-point at very high-resolution using an experimental multi-cast protocol, between selected international arts venues.

With VisitorsStudio the art is created and distributed in real time across the Internet by many participants linking together at the same time, who mix and remix files that they have created or found and then uploaded to the common database. Alternatively, participants retrieve, manipulate and remix files that have been uploaded to the database by other contributors. The live conversations shared as they collectively create the work may also be considered a part of the performance- along with comments or occasional heckling from the audience.

Although the first prototype was launched in 2004, there remain remarkably few, free, open, online collaborative mixing platforms like VisitorsStudio. Keyworx[8], is similar in that it is an application that allows multiple players to generate, synthesize and process images, sounds and text within a shared real-time environment to create collaborative performance. However its sophisticated array of finely tuned tools make this a platform for ‘expert users’. With its deliberately easy-to-use tools VisitorsStudio sets out to “create a Beuysian mediaspace or channel for the (relative) masses in which openness and access override technical specificity.”[9]

Parallels can also be drawn between VisitorsStudio and UpStage, by Avatar Body Collision, an international performance troupe dedicated to globally dispersed cyberformance. Upstage is an open-source web-based venue and tool for artists to compile different digital media for textual and audiovisual communication into a live performance, in real time, for online audiences. A central thematic in their work is the relationship of the body to the machine, and in particular, what it means to be human in a world of intelligent machines.

A final helpful comparison can be made with the collaborative drawing and communication spaces created by net artist Andy Deck[10] of ArtContext. Works such as Glyphiti, Imprimatur and Panel Junction use the Internet, the gallery and public spaces to invite participants to join him in creatively questioning corporate control over communication tools and software.

So finally to address the socio-technical landscape in which VisitorsStudio sits. The shift in the late 20th Century from material to immaterial culture has seen an explosion in the rate of copying, duplicating and redistributing of cultural artefacts and this makes culture more malleable; open to the influence of not just ‘professional’ cultural producers but of the vernacular. This process is accelerated by the popular adoption by the multitude of commercial but ‘free’ spaces like Flickr, MySpace and YouTube.

The proliferation of lateral, digital connection mechanisms associated with Web2.0 such as SMS, social bookmarking and RSS, subjects the contemporary networked human-being to a deluge of information and expressive culture from all directions, not just from on high, from authorized channels for information, news and culture, but also rising up through the grass roots.

New media theorist Lev Manovich[11] argues that the remixing of culture has a long and honourable tradition in the history of western culture, whether in the form of a renaissance artist remixing antiquity or Gap back-engineering a haute-couture design seen on a Paris catwalk. However the hyper-connectivity of Web2.0 promotes a cultural landscape where original sources become less important, where “the separation between libraries of samples and "authentic" cultural works blur… We are no longer just looking to the same old sources for information. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregate and remix micro-content in new and useful ways.” [12]Manovich sees a future world of automated modularity where cultural building-blocks are shuffled across digital networks by machines to produce unlimited audio-visual diversity.

Helen Thorington, of Turbulence’s award winning networked_performance blog describes how today’s social software boom “rests on common devices such as mobile phones, computers, digital cameras and portable music players” and notes that, as with works such as Hole in Space, people have determined how they are used and what they mean. However she also observes how the social is commodified and foresees how “a broad range of communicative possibilities that could enrich the tele-communicative experience will be lost; others will never be developed.”[13]

Somehow the artist must find his/her way in this: initiating new explorations, and at the same time helping to broaden the scope of what is possible – moving from the purely functional to something that will help enlarge the beauty and pleasure of everyday life… [14]

VisitorsStudio and projects like it support and explore the ongoing expressive and communicative processes of human beings collaborating in new ways in this context, as active agents in the production of the cultural landscape.

- Furtherfield.org 2006

[1] From The Festival by Andreas Broeckmann, in On Transitory Realities and their Generators (FOAM 2006 pg 54)

[2] From the Manifesto of mail art Considerations by Lon Speigalman and Mario Lara 1980, in At a Distance (ed Chandler & Neumark 2005 pg 101)

[3] Ibid.

[4] e.g. DissensionConvention http://www.furtherfield.org/dissensionconvention/
Coinciding with the Republican Convention in New York, over 20 international digital artists broadcast collaborative art-polemic via VisitorsStudio in protest at US foreign policy. These were projected at Postmasters Gallery's RNC NODE and in local bars, streets and projections from shop windows.

[5] As described by Bjorn Norberg, one time curator of NonTVTV in Get Real, (ed Morton Sondergaard 2005)

[6] Helen Thorington of Turbulance– post to Empyre mailing list about networked_performance, July 2005.

[7] NonTVTV a Swedish real-time arts project by Beoff

[8] Keyworx produced by the Waag Society

[9] Patrick Lichty writing about VisitorsStudio in the catalogue for Game/Play exhibition 2006

[10] Recipient of the 2006 Whitney/Tate net art commission.

[11] Remix and Remixability posted by Lev Manovich (author of the Language of New Media) to Nettime mailing list November 2005.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Helen Thorington post to Empyre email discussion list 30th July 2005

[14] Ibid.