Introduction

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As part of Disclosures Critical Practice were invited to contribute to The View From Here: after Open Congress, Saturday 29th March 2008 1130-1300.

Critical Practice is asked to address specific issues:

The speakers will introduce the basis of their project and describe their own position within it. They will also outline where the project has taken its cue from, from the perspective of recent media and contemporary art history. Led by Marina Vishmidt, the discussion that follows will attempt to outline questions that were yet unresolved at the end of the described projects, with particular scrutiny on the involvement of contemporary art institutions and methodologies.

The representation of group, collective and collaborative practice (open or otherwise) is a constituent issue for Critical Practice. The Self Representation working group discussed how to respond - see minutes: Disclosures 03 03 08 and Pre ResourceCamp.


The form of the presentation

A slide show covering each of the four themes pecha kucha-styleee. 20 seconds per slide is suggested.

Part One:

We (Ian and Trevor) will refer back to the Chelsea Wiki as one part of the history of Open Congress.


Slide number (image)

  1. To talk about the basis for Open Congress it's necessary to think back to 2004: Open source software was beginning to prove itself on the desktop in the form of Firefox, Wikipedia was beginning to show how large scale, open collaborative practice could produce valuable knowledge.
  2. Blogs, torrents, peer-to-peer networks, email, mobile phones. How many of you have made a mixtape or lent someone a DVD? There's unlimited access to other peoples stuff, people are seemingly giving away their creative content (and other people's).
  3. This activity, both generous and piratical, was at odds with less free proprietary models of production and distribution. Lawrence Lessig was showing us how the law was frantically trying to contain the cultural shift in Free Culture.
  4. We believe art institutions were and still are struggling with their relationship to these changes and the habit of nurturing uniqueness within the cultural continuum.
  5. For us, studying on the Fine Art BA at Chelsea, we felt all at odds with the University's treatment of students that was still very much focused on the individual. If collaboration took place, it was someone's responsibility to pick it apart, the examiner, student or tutor.
  6. Why is there such a bias toward the individual? The reluctance to support non-individual practice is difficult to accept - it is not for lack of theory. Confounded by Bourriaud many of our peers separated curation and 'post production' from the work of artists.
  7. This climate provided a lot of impetus for collaboration, some of which you will surely be familiar with or experienced yourselves over the last four years.
  8. We were interested whether the notion of collaboration could extend to community. Were people willing to risk what they could achieve on their own in favour of working on something less tangible with other people? We wanted to take this a step further and ask 'What would a peer-led degree show look like'? That is, one that didn't attempt to mask the informal and fluid exchange of ideas between students on the course, tutors, the building and the world at large (!)
  9. We started, as all well meaning open art practices do, with some meetings to gauge interest and discuss ideas. We set up the ChelseaWiki - intended to build upon the general open vibe in the year group. The wiki became a site for minutes, lectures, notes, theses, photographs of art works... In part it was a response against Blackboard, the institutions own virtual learning environment.
  10. The wiki was obviously a powerful tool, but it didn't work for everyone. A barrier to some was the fact that all content placed on it was licensed under the General Public License. However, for those that understood this they soon realised it helped to cement and record the collaboration and emergent practices of a small number of us.
  11. Come April, with theses completed we were now concentrating on putting theory into practice in the form of the degree show. Uncomfortable with the easy container of 'a group' we observed a business tradition of initials - first names though :-)
  12. (Darrel's Venn scribble) After much talk we, Darrel_Ian_Tom_Trevor_Wei-Ho (DITTW), wrote a set of Founding Principles describing what was commonly held to be important in an open approach to practice.
  13. When it came to scaling our activities it became clear that our openness was false - our principles and decisions were heavily codified. We were encouraged to unpick our informal 'clan' values and negotiate a common language with our new partners (a group of first years).
  14. The degree show was a fantastic affair, with a mess of ideas and activities encompassing social spaces with free internet access, gallery activities for families, children and college staff, a seminar, even an Open Congress meeting...
  15. (Darrel's spider) What was important about all of this was it was collaboratively authored, and was confident in making the various relationships explicit within the work. For those that were interested the Wiki provided the background.
  16. Around this time some of the staff at Chelsea were floating the idea of Open Congress. The congress seemed a good opportunity for us to continue working together beyond the degree show, and by nature of it being open we were free to get involve and help shape it. We'll now hand over to Neil and Corrado to give you more background on the Congress itself...

Neil and Corrado to talk briefly about Open Congress itself

They intend to use this text as a basis, and chomp it down to 5mins

Hello and Welcome to Open Congress

As you heard from Trevor and Ian, some of us at Chelsea became interested in collaborative art practice,:

in issues of access and participation, organizational structures, the impact of digital technologies and social exchanges like generosity and friendship.

We recognized, that these themes provide tools to enable us to think through the conventions of arts authorship, its ownership and distribution; they give us a critical purchase.

Many of these themes seem to connect directly to what we knew of the development of Free/Libre and Open Source software – FLOSS, and more generally copyleft licensing and the Free Culture movement.

So we began to wonder if, and how, these FLOSS development methodologies could map onto or into the creative practice that we were interested in.

So a core group began to research, convene and discuss.

We began to see how issues of collaboration, self-organization, ownership, access and participation - were emerging in all manner of cultural practices.

We learnt about initiatives calling for open-source democracy, ‘open’ law and knowledge projects, about ‘open’ organizational and business models.

We realized that it would be disingenuous –yet again- to separate art and its institutions off from these other social forces and processes, so we tried seriously to mesh with and engage our research where we recognized parallel or related drives.

In April 2004, we approached the Tate about the idea of a conference using FLOSS as its starting point.

We made an internal bid to the Research Committee at Chelsea for funding, we were eventually successful and secured £10,000 to support the project.

In January 2005 we set up our website www.opencongress.org using OpenMute’s www.openmute.org free suite of tools, and we started a wiki

Through using the wiki, we began to engage with a wider related community, both on and off line.

We also began to mesh with other organizations that were using a similar suite of software tools and shared similar themes.

We became attached, related to and inspired by Season of Media Arts London [SMAL] - soon to be node.London.

and learnt enormously the collaborative student initiative www.chelseawiki.org

It was becoming obvious to us that organizations interested in FLOSS like practice should also conduct themselves in an open, transparent and accountable way.

In management terminology we were sharing ‘best practice’ with other groups, and clearly ‘open’ organizations learn and transfer knowledge extraordinarily quickly

There was a powerful moment when at one meeting it dawned on us that it would be disingenuous to organize a conference about issues arising from FLOSS development without consistently and ethically embodying them.

So, this is where it got very, very exciting, but rather messy.

We used guidelines from a website www.openorganizations.org on how to practice as an ‘open’ organization – so we tried to learn to be open, transparent and accountable in all we did, to devolve decision making, and use the notion of a ‘rough consensus’ to make those decisions.

We evolved the idea of holding public meetings - meetings ‘open’ to anyone who got to hear about them at places in London like the Royal festival Hall, a private members club, a studio, an exhibition, a café at Chelsea, etc.

And we started to try and post all details, agendas, meeting notes and action points on our wiki, so we could build a collaborative record, for all to see, of the process we were actively engaged in.

At these large and lively, or small and intimate meetings we began to draw up lists of possible participants and to generate themes of related interests that could help us structure our conference; these began to coalesce as Governance, Creativity and Knowledge.

And we began to think of them as ecologies, as meshed networks of participants and resources.

We also realized that a conventional academic form of conference – famous speakers, passive audience - was inappropriate for our content, we needed something much more open and participatory.

The collaboratively developed conference became a congress with multiple strands, with simultaneous talks, presentations and workshops.

The other side of was our interface with our partner, Tate Britain. Tate’s role slowly withdrew from actively developing the congress (except for the media dept) to being its infrastructural host. Overworked Tate staff slipped into cruise control, and with all their experience set about organizing a conference, with Critical Practice as the content provider.

In June 2005 we were beset with scheduled demands to meet Tate print deadlines with lists of confirmed speakers, technical needs and conference packs. What we actually had at that moment was a swirling mass of possible participants nominated through our wiki, an innovative structure with multiple strands in different locations in the museum and a decision making process that was [at times] indeterminate.

Tate’s top-down management hierarchy needed us to fit a template, and we couldn’t.

W e probably appeared badly organized and incapable of meeting deadlines.

Actually we were differently organized and when deadlines loomed acted with enormous collective energy and precision. This made our relationship –with the best will in the world- difficult and fraught for both parties.

In July 2005 we began to invite people from our wiki generated participant lists, some were self selected, others had made proposals, and some had been collaboratively nominated, many were international.

How could we divide the budget to accommodate these differences?

Who should we pay?

And who should decide whom to pay?

At one astonishing meeting, where we were struggling to agree on how to allocate our financial resources equitably, we decided to post our then total budget on-line, on our wiki.

It sort of worked, but many ethical questions still haunt us, some of which we will address at the ResourceCamp tomorrow

As the congress loomed, the mismatches of organization practice between Tate, ourselves and sixty or so individuals became ever more apparent.

Although what also became clear is that ‘open’ organizations are exceptionally good in a crisis

Wireless London, with internal support of Tate on-line curator [who also in-kind sponsored webcasting and archiving most of the congress events] networked all the relevant Tate spaces simply and without fuss.

The formerly SMAL had become Node.London and with cybersalon and Open Congress shared international speakers, technology [for the October season of events], and raised additional funds

Throughout the organization of Open Congress we tried to conduct ourselves in an open, transparent and accountable way, and we failed on many accounts.

Much of our organization was shambolic, many of our invited participants felt the effects of this as we struggled with deadlines and schedules, and some invited institutional participants withdrew.

Our interpretation of this is that certain institutionalized individuals need fairly constant reassurance of who they are dealing with, and a familiar structure into which they will fit.

Something we were not able to provide.

But the opposite and much more positive effect is that many participants self organized, invited others, curated their own panels within the congress structure, proposed workshops and installed stalls in the Clore Gallery Foyer at Tate.

For Critical Practice organizing and developing a project using FLOSS inspired practices has been a very sharp learning curve, and [mostly ] a thrilling process. A conference became a congress, ideas were genuinely contested and developed, and there was no audience, only participants.

Marsha and Michaela will address the historicisation of Open Congess and the emergence of Critical Practice?

Marsha will begin with the following:

In what ways is the audience engagement in Open Congress emblematic of our current age of participation?

What’s the relationship between the participation propelling Critical Practice’s collaborative enterprise and recent developments in technology and culture?

There are many ways to address these two questions. We could, for example, expand on Ian and Trevor and Neil and Corrado’s reflections and discuss Critical Practice in relation to Web 2.0 technologies, arguing, perhaps that the group’s “wikification” demonstrates general trends in social networking technologies.

Or, we could situate Critical Practice in what curators and critics like Claire Bishop and Maria Lind have called “the collaborative turn.” We could say that projects like this one—like the cluster’s participation in Disclosures—aptly demonstrates the ways in which artist groups are using social situations to produce dematerialized, anti-market and politically-engaged projects that champion the old avant-garde edict to merge art and life.

Alternatively, we could locate Critical Practice in relation to new media (slash) media studies. We could discuss the group’s interest in digital technology, not so much as an end in itself—not because we’re mystified by pressing buttons or laying cables—but because we’re fascinated with the media associated with new technologies. By using new technologies as tools for collaborative art making, we also seek to understand the new and unexpected ways these forms are shaping subjectivity.

Certainly, these are all useful vectors for understanding Critical Practice within our current cultural context. But instead of further exploring any one of these foci, we’d like to take a slightly different approach and address our personal relationship to and understanding of participation as creative practice in Critical Practice. In particular, we’d like to discuss the intersubjective space created through our collective participation and how it operates as THE MEDIUM for creative expression within the group.

Michaela may then discuss our identities as second generation CPs and research students at Chelsea. She may talk about how we’ve “received” CP by way of osmosis—by way of intimations and tacit practices. She may then suggest how we're using CP in our personal research.... This could open out into discussion of CP/Chelsea’s relationship to TATE… (We’ve had some good preparatory discussion about how CP operates both by osmosis and symbiosis.)

Cinzia and Robin will address the most recent phase of Critical Practice in relationship to art institutions

1. Atelier Trans Pal
What questions where left open by Open Congress? The answer seems to be ‘all of them’. Critical Practice has its roots in these questions and in finding ways of keep asking them. I discovered Critical Practice through the Node.London list in 2006 when they “staged” the Atelier Trans Pal event in courtyard of Chelsea College.
2. Fractal
What struck me about it was the fact that this event had not been pinned down to the point of making it impossible to think within it.
This for me remains a core quality of Critical Practice – A capacity to activate situations in which it is possible to think together, to be critical and to be self-reflective. Because it is OPEN. Or, as Robin put it: ‘Being self-reflective is our excuse to allow the event to collapse.’
3. CP Logo
While the personnel and organizational structures partly changed, the ‘name’ Critical Practice has been around for a few years, which gives credibility to our ‘brand’. Which is good to be recognizable- especially when dealing with large institutions such as universities, the Tate or big galleries…
4. Chanel Logo
But then again we do not want to be as recognizable a brand as, say, Chanel. ‘Fame’ would be counterproductive, as it makes it easy to be instrumentalised- and it would ruin our ‘reputation’ in more critical circles like here.
5. High rise
We want to be taken seriously. But in trying to fulfill certain obligations, existing or perceived ones, of the institutions we work with, there is a danger of self-subduing ourselves, in anticipation of institutional expectations… And a danger of becoming an institution, as we are working with them.
6. Pirate ship
Also in order to keep a more radical image, we’d prefer to think of ourselves as a bunch of pirates. Making contracts and treaties with big Empires and small shipping companies, but all only as strategic elements in our bigger plans. And working together only based on a set of guidelines, retaining the subversive unpredictability of a random crew… 7. Open Organisation workshop
We ARE an institution as we institute practices. We try to be sensitive to issues of self-governance to remain a healthy organisation. Soon after Atelier Trans Pal, Ian led a Open Organisation workshop, where we explored the Open Organisation guidelines and found ways of inhabiting them. We’ll explore some aspects of this in the Resource Camp tomorrow afternoon.
8. Song workshop
I can identify the workshop as the moment I was able to say WE. We remain a fluid cluster, with some members flowing in and out. The Open Organisation guidelines remain guidelines, not a structure we fit into. We try to nurture this openness and sometimes we find more playful ways of asking questions.
Here, we used the process of trying to compose and perform a Critical Practice song as a catalyst for self-reflection. 9. Aims and Objectives
In a number of ways, the Aims and Objectives are the backbone around which the cluster functions and they are themselves always in the process of being revised.
10. Pippi Longstockings
As we are constantly in the process of re-negotiating our working practices and remain open to any new collaborator in our network, rather than an institution, we strive to be more like Pippi Longstocking’s gang – which sometimes consists of just Pippi, or also her two best friends, but is always open to one more kid joining the action and sometimes their adventures involve all the children of the village…


Trevor and Cinzia will be on stage (as representatives of Critical Practice and the Social Relations working group). Others speaking for Critical Practice will speak from the floor.



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