neil cummings


03 Jun 2010

Peter Maloney is a researcher working on the impact of technology within learning environments. This is an edited text of a conversation from Thursday 3rd June 2010.

Peter Maloney: Neil, I’m interested in the origins of the Chelseawiki, and the benefits of FLOSS software development as a model for creative practice,………… among other things. So, in 2004 students you had been working with started up a wiki, can you say a little about how that came about?

N: Yes, I think it was 2004, it’s all still archived on the Chelseawiki if you need to check! It grew out of two things – a group of undergraduate students began to collaborate together, Ian Drysdale, Tom Neill, Trevor Giles, Daryl Stadlen and Wei Ho Ng, and I gave a series of lectures and seminars – called something like Free Culture. The seminars introduced ideas from Free Libre or Open Source Software [FLOSS], and explored how these might impact on art’s practice and organization.

In the seminar we decided to set up a wiki, Ian was familiar with Mediawiki, it hosts wikipedia, which he set up on his server [because it was not possible to do so within the University]. He taught all of us in how to edit a wiki. It was a really exciting seminar, we were all learning together. The use of the Chelseawiki grew from there, its use slowly spread from the seminar across the whole of the Fine Art course.

PM: Why did they choose a wiki?

N:  Because it fitted many of the things we were talking about in the seminar – and for them, a group of students who wanted to collaborate on a Fine Art course, it matched their aspirations. They saw that the collective production of art was often ignored in favour of championing the individual. They could see a problem looming in terms of their assessment, and their final degree exhibition. They were working together, and yet when it came to the assessment they would be treated individually, and have to identify what part of the project they were responsible for. They thought that this was reinforcing the individual and downplaying the collaborative nature of Fine Art. A wiki is collaboratively produced and as a resource it remains in the public domain; other people can benefit. For them it was a really important model for art and creative cultural production more generally.

PM: Am I right in thinking the Chelseawiki is still active, even though they have left?

N:  Yes it is now six years old, which for a wiki is pretty amazing and its huge. It’s interesting that the usage goes up and down - it seems to get ignited around particular issues and become very active, then fall off again.

In its heyday around 2005-6 it grew very quickly and was rich in resources. I put up most of the seminar notes, and these were quickly added to as we began to produce texts together on various subjects; like 'the gift' for example after the sociologist Marcel Mauss. The ‘gift’ was a term we were using in the seminars to talk about the circulation of resources that were not owned by anyone. And also, the idea of the ‘gift’ as a way of binding people into reciprocal relationships. It’s a useful term to think about why people invest in things they don’t own.

We also did some thinking about Blood Banks - there is a famous text by a sociologist Richard Titmuss [The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy, from the 1970’s] concerning the question of why people give blood. Why do you give the most precious thing you have to people that you don’t know?

These were the kinds of things we were reading, producing and thinking about in the seminar, we also started to collate bibliographies and aggregate resources. Then I realised I could also put my undergraduate lecture notes on the site and students, if they wrote their essays or theses on subjects that were somehow related, could link these to the lectures and vice versa.  Then students began to edit and add to the lectures, [if they were relevant] I would incorporate these additions into future iterations. So this was the most exciting bit, the wiki became this very fluid space, where who was influencing who, who was teaching who, and what kind of knowledge was being shared or exchanged became blurred, but very productive. It was exciting!

PM: What is really powerful about this is that demonstrates how this software tool facilitates, or asks us to re-consider the change in traditional roles of lecturer and student…

N: Absolutely

PM: …With the wiki everyone is learning…and everyone has the opportunity to teach…and contribute.

N: Yep, and one thing that a wiki does challenge, along with other softwares of this kind, is the traditional hierarchies of power and knowledge. And where that power or knowledge resides.  It’s true that in seminars, knowledge and experience exists as much in the students as it does in me – the person who convenes the seminar. Which is why it was so powerful when one of the students Ian, taught all of us how to install the software and edit a wiki – I had no idea.

PM: So rather than a ‘one to many’ broadcast model, it became more of a ‘many to many’ model?

Yes, and of course as a lecturer or teacher, you always hope that this will be the case – obviously in this instance it was a seminar, not a lecture, it’s a more discursive form. But often it can be hard to find mechanisms where you can make the collaborative process explicit – its no good just saying, “well, you can all contribute” this does nothing to change the existing power relations; they are still in play – but when a student like Ian is teaching everyone, it empowers others to do the same…

PM: So clearly the software in this case facilitated the activity, but could you also talk a little about how the way that the software is developed has influenced the process or form of the groups activities?

N: Yes, well, I readily confess to knowing very little about software, I was much more interested in these modes of Free Libre or Open Source [FLOSS] software production; how it’s explicitly collaboratively produced. And the genius of the license. The General Public License, the GPL licenses the software, and the creative acts that develop it, out of copyright. This means it sidesteps traditional notions of ownership and authorship. Basically it offered a creative way to think about how art could be practiced.

As I mentioned before, being a Fine Art student at an Art College is conventionally about developing “one’s own” practice, and success is measured in winning prizes or securing a ‘one-person’ exhibition, or selling something, or getting a first class degree. All these activities re-enforce the idea that art and creativity is a competitive process, a tournament, and that only the very best survive. It reproduces the notion of cultural production as competition. And maybe, that’s not the only model. In fact that model may not be very productive at all, or indeed very creative. In many ways it feels exhausted. So these ‘open’ software inspired models of practice offer a very creative and productive way forward. Not that one mode of production will necessarily replace the other, more that collaboration and mutuality should have more visibility and acknowledgement

PM: You’ve talked about where these models can rub up against each other within the College - say at assessment. In a University which is increasingly dependent, not on public funding but on income generation how might these models work on a larger scale?

N: Well if you look at some of the most successful commercial organisations, they are not using raw competition as the only way of generating profit; and nor is money the only measure. Look at Google for instance, where they offer their staff 20% of their time to do something creative or innovative. So where competition works, use it. But it’s not the only drive, its not a very efficient mechanism, and it’s not universally applicable. Not everything can be turned into a toutnament, a competitive market.

So I sometimes have the feeling that Fine Art within the University and in the art-world more generally is behind the times. Just because we are no longer predominantly public funded, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim to create public goods, and in fact this could be our USP, our very point of difference. For example many of the lectures at Massachutes Institute of Technology [MIT] are available online under the ides of ‘open courseware’ , in fact most ‘public’ American Universities appear to be putting what we might call their ‘content’ online for others to access. Its one of the reason’s I put my lectures on the Chelseawiki is that they are viewable by anyone, anywhere; and anyone can copy, develop and redistribute them.

PM: In some cases there may be an angst that goes with the idea of giving everything away – if I give everything away I will have nothing left!

N: Yes and maybe this is a result of the idea that somehow creativity is scarce and has to be harnessed as a rare resource through competition and markets. Where in fact creativity could be a limitless resource, it could be the most bountiful thing we have. To try and use property and restriction to distribute creativity is nonsense. The idea of intellectual property [IP] takes structural mechanism from the world of artefacts and tries to apply them to an immaterial world of ideas or creativity. It’s nonsense. To try and restrict and ‘own’ creativity in a moment where we have a dearth of natural resources, where we are running out of materials is really stupid. Creativity could be the very thing to get us out of the mess! We have to try and share creativity, to nurture and encourage creativity. We have to distribute ideas as widely as we can. As an artists I have to have the confidence that ‘I am not going to run out of ideas’.

So I’m happy to put my lecture notes online, and anyway, reading a lecture online is not the same as its performance, it changes the nature of what a lecture is…

PM: I was interested in what you said earlier about the students [who started the wiki and worked collaboratively on their final exhibition] and how they used the wiki to discuss and deal with assessment – to question the very educational structures of which they were a part – do you think they were successful at doing this?

N: Well, I don’t know for sure but…………………….,I know this only anecdotally…………, apparently they were all given the same degree. So I think they were able to get recognition for the way that they had worked…

PM: … and that sounds like a fair outcome, the exciting thing about that case is that it came about through a discussion or dialogue… pedagogic theory would seem to suggest that this is a good state to be in, to be able to…

N: … yeah, that they could negotiate, to an extent, their own terms of assessment. Which is surely what you would expect from a group of super- bright students.

PM: How has your research impacted on your teaching in this field?

N: Well, one of the things it would be good for me to say is, that starting in 2004-5, the Critical Practice research group evolved, now I work less with the undergraduates and more in research. Critical Practice use a wiki to co-ordinate and document everything we do, and it also affects how we organise – we use a set of guidelines drawn up by people who worked in FLOSS software development about how to run an Open Organisation. They are very practical suggestions about how to organise yourself if you don’t want to use a traditional top-down hierarchy.

So we do things like, publish the dates of all our meetings and agendas beforehand, all the minutes and action-points afterwards online, so through the wiki you can follow and read everything. We publish our budget on the wiki too. Everyone can edit it, and see where the money comes from and exactly where it goes. Many processes currently under scrutiny in our wider political lives, things like transparency, accountability and openness, are actually encouraged by the use of the wiki’s. So it’s not just a piece of software, a piece of technology, it has actually transformed how we organise ourselves. This idea of radical transparency is quite exciting for me.

PM: At your presentation at Educamp this year you discussed idea about how ‘Free’ does not mean ‘value free’ – can you expand on that?

N: Well I remember that one of the discussions that came out of Educamp was that with this way of working, of working collaborative and freely distributing the results, raises the question “So how do you earn money?’ And I think one of the things I talked about was that you move the point at which you get financially rewarded.

Increasingly as an artist, I don’t produce an artefact that I wait to exhibit at a gallery, who then tries to trade it with someone else and I get a cut. This seems like a traditional nineteenth century idea about artefacts, trade and commerce. I try and provide a service. So I am paid up-front in the form of a fee, and then what I ‘produce’ can be freely distributed, copied and redistributed. I’ve been paid, and it’s in my interest for the artworks to circulate widely.  For example I collaborated on the production of a film Screen Tests for the British Artshow 6, which as well as being exhibited was given away on DVD’s at all the galleries of the exhibitions tour. The artwork was itself ‘open content’ licensed. The fee covers the production of the artwork, my time – and that of my collaborators- my creativity and my investment. By being paid to provide a creative service, I don’t need to benefit from 2p on every DVD sold.

PM: This reminds me of a point that Tom Neill made in his thesis, that once a piece of software has been produced it costs very little money to distribute, or make multiple copies. It’s the cost of its initial production where the cost is incurred.

N: Yes and this is again another good example of a kind of ‘software logic’. Traditionally artist have been taught to think that they make money through scarcity – that the things they produce are rare, selling them for a very high price and getting a cut of that price is the best way to make a living. Although that is not the only model available to us now, perhaps a ‘service provision’ model [the idea was introduced by Andrea Fraser in 1994] is more creative, and will be more productive in the future.

PM: At your professorial lecture last year, you showed a film Museum Futures; Distributed. The thing that struck me about the film was that the characters in the film are indistinguishable from the technology they used – the body and technology are one – is that a serious prediction or did it just fit the script?

N: The film is set fifty years from now, it was commissioned by Moderna Museet, the national modern art museum in Sweden, when they were fifty years old in 2008. They commissioned a few artists, but mostly historians to celebrate their birthday. Mostly, well everybody, celebrated the fact that they were really important in the Sixties and Seventies. It felt a little like mourning. It didn’t feel like a celebration. So I had this idea that we could instead celebrate their Centenary.

In the film the Museum Director is being interviewed, and while the Director is looking back on their past, she is in fact looking into our future. I had been reading a lot of ‘Actor Network Theory’, reading people like Bruno Latour. They use terms like ‘technicity’, to try and break down the traditional separation between our technologies and ourselves; they suggest that actually we are one and the same thing. We as subjects are made by our technologies, as much as they are prostheses. They also ascribe agency to technology, so it seemed natural in the film that the characters were interdependent with their technologies. For example, there are moments in the film when the director of Moderna Museet becomes emotional, and then the building begins to respond. There are changes in the sound design as if the building is responding to her emotional state. So our co-dependency with the technologies we inhabit is less a prediction, and more a matter of fact.

PM: This leads nicely to my next question… you have just organised the Parade event here at Chelsea, is this an example of wiki or FLOSS software logic being applied to physical, or ‘actual’ events?

N: Parade has grown out of the same set of interests that inform the Critical Practice research cluster. We’ve been researching into what constitutes ‘the public’ – public space, public servants and public institutions, public goods, knowledge, public broadcasting, etc. Clearly it’s a very live debate. Academic conferences about “the public’ tend to happen in lecture theatres and other conventional institutional spaces. We wanted Parade to be ‘in public’. Again using some of the ideas of Actor Network Theory, they use terms like aggregating, and assembling publics, so we began to explore and research what it means to assemble a public, what kind of conditions do you need to convene a public.

The structure we built was from 4320 plastic crates, which was itself a kind of aggregate structure. We worked with architects who were interested in what is called emergent structures. So we tried to aggregate a structure that could, in turn facilitate an assembly of people around discussions about what does it mean to ‘be in public’? As we say in our programme ‘our modes of assembly, our forms of address and the knowledge that we share are intimately bound’, so this goes back a little bit to the idea of  ‘technicity’; you cant have one [form of assembly] without the other [mode of address] which obviously impacts on the knowledge you share.  A conference about public space in a lecture theatre in an institution seems to avoid all these issues. So Parade literally tried to embody these ideas, and you’re right, it’s a kind of wiki logic.

PM: It’s been the interesting thing for me as I have carried out this research through talking to people about their implementations, they are not technology driven, they are generally ideologically driven. Therefore it may not be appropriate for everyone, I suppose…

N: Yes, I keep finding myself having to say it, but I actually don’t know much about softwares and I’m actually not that interested. But as technologies, as tools, what they enable, and might enable is what’s exciting. Although you have to continually learn, and be prepared to be creative, which of course is what you are supposed to do as a person in an art school…

PM: Which I guess involves taking risks?

N: …Taking risks… in what appears to be an increasingly risk averse environment… and being prepared to fail. While aggregating this structure for Parade, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We abandoned the conventional conference format; we were experimenting with different structures through which people can share knowledge. We didn’t know if they were going to work. And some didn’t. You have to be prepared, I think, to fail. Which is increasingly hard. We work in a creative institution; it’s not the health service where failure could literally be life or death. I think we should take risks. But we are increasingly risk averse, like when you do research and apply for funding; currently you are supposed to know in advance what you are going to do, and predict the outcomes and their impact. Even before you have started. Well that’s not possible. It makes a nonsense of real research, where you don’t know and you have to be prepared not to know; and to fail. And if you cant take those risks, then its not research, then its just an exercise, it’s a hollow performance of research.


Related events include Substrate, the Enthusiasts archive I co-founded, or Tearing.


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Chelsea College of Arts
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Submitted by neil on 21 June, 2010 - 13:30