Projects helping projects helping projects
By Daniel Tucker
Originally Published in Clamor Magazine Issue 29, 2004
Michael Wolf admits that what he does is essentially the same thing that everyone else does. Informally sharing resources among family and friends is something that most people do just to survive, cut costs, or save space. A year ago Michael, an artist living in Chicago, started the NCAAV (the Network of Casual Art Audio Visual department) which lends out a small pool of good quality A/V equipment like video projectors and cameras to “out-of-pocket initiatives run by artists and activists, people whom I admire and whose work I want to support.”
Asked about the motivation for starting the NCAAAV equipment lending library Wolf says, “I wanted to meet new people.” Mike had been an artist working in fairly conventional ways for a while, making “pictures hung on walls.” “I really felt like that way of working was coming to a dead end on some level, and I thought about finding some way to expand my associations. I thought that a way to meet those people and participate was to play a supporting roll in the culture that interested me.” Essentially what Mike gets out of providing a free service to artists and activists in need of audio/visual equipment is the opportunity to help strengthen a community of activist/artists, the possibility of chance encounters with interesting artists, and the occasional free ticket to a community theatre event.
The work of NCAAV, and many other similar projects, is part of a long history of small and subversive groups of artist/activists creating their own ways of sharing information, skills, and ideas through informal and non-commercial networks . In the 60’s and 70’s there were tool libraries and neighborhood technology groups which advocated for inner-neighborhood sustainable living. More recently, everything from zine libraries and discussion groups to skill-sharing events have been popular, proving helpful as artists and activists continuously try to find ways to build their communities..
A “platform” is an initiative which helps to foster/create/enable other initiatives. For the purposes of this article we are focusing on the small scale autonomous services, not to be confused with the social services or product services provided by the government and the communication industry. Like events in punk and activist communities spawned by the DIY (do it yourself )ethic, platform projects attempt to create situations that build alternatives to profit-centered, impersonal, and unethical methods of exchange. Instead, they foster alternative economies where sharing, cooperation, collaboration, bartering, and/or gift-exchange are the systems at work. The platform created by these projects is not the literal physical space or stage for exchange seen in the banks and institutions that flourish under capitalism. They are more conceptual and virtual spaces where creative exchange occurs, spawns more exchange, and continuously expands. Platforms are projects that help projects help projects.
Graphics Platforms and Reproducible Art
Rini Templeton dedicated her whole life to creating easily reproducible artwork primarily around Central American struggles, she called it “xerox” art. Her thirty-year history of radical graphic art production created some of the most easily-recognizable and familiar images for social justice and have continuously been reproduced copyright-free on placards, shirts, flyers and the occasional tattoo. The book The Art of Rini Templeton, in both Spanish and English: Where there is life and struggle was created as a reproducible portfolio of graphics and was intended to further disseminate Templeton’s graphics to a broader audience for use in political campaigns.
The book is out of print, and Rini passed away in 1986, but the website created by her foundation (www.rinijart.org) continues to distribute her work for free. The website’s format is not uncommon these days, Sites using downloadable materials for use in political campaigns, particularly anti-Bush campaigns, have proliferated in recent months. For instance, see the download section of the rncnotwelcome.org site or the pictures of street art collected at http://www.stopbushproject.com. This mode of information collection and dispersal is reminiscent of an earlier, more centralized New York-based initiative of the 1980s called Political Art Documentation/ Distribution. PAD/D wanted to encourage and share the many political street graphics of the early 1980s, as well as serve as an archive and a resource.
Artists and activists have always found ways to spread graphics, images, content and slogans to create a visible presence in the world and more engaging forms of resistance. The methods, though not the strategies, pioneered by artists like Rini Templeton and collectives like PAD/D has shifted with the growth of the Internet. The ideas are very much the same even though the tools have been updated.
Platform projects make a lot of sense in the virtual world. This is partly the case because of the so-called democratic characteristics of the web. Anyone can have a personal website, blog or email address and broadcast their message to the world.
The relatively short history of the web is filled with examples of individuals and collectives using the internet as a way of advancing issues of social justice, cultural expression, and freedom of information. Perhaps the most obvious example is indymedia.org . Begun as a means to allow activists to post news and updates during the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, Indymedia is now the world’s largest all-volunteer organization, spanning every continent with sites and subcollectives doing much of the maintenance to keep it running. The open publishing format that makes Indymedia possible is called Active. Active can be distinguished from most open source/ publishing applications in that its creators are explicit about its intended use towards the goals of political action and social justice. Active software enables anyone to publish their news stories or announcements on Indymedia.org anytime through their local Indymedia site or to visit another cities Indymedia and post announcements and news. In addition to indymedia, Active has been used by several other similar initiatives in Australia, where the software originated.
With similar goals in mind, Mute magazine, a London-based publication dedicated primarily to the intersections of culture, activism, and new technologies, has recently launched a web project called OpenMute. According to their website, this web platform was created in response to the growing number of “powerful, free online tools become[ing] available,” and the fact that “individuals without relevant technical skills are often unable to independently engage with them.” OpenMute responded “by making a selection of trusted tools available from one, easy to find, web location.” Basically what OpenMute provides is an easy to use, pre-designed (but still flexible) web site which can be obtained mostly for free by art and activist groups (though some packages cost a small fee). These feature the latest open source community building tools, allowing the site owner tailor his or her site to meet their specific needs. The content can be changed or added using any computer, anywhere that has internet access. The kinds of community building tools that are available include: News publishing, Wiki (a “collaborative” software that allows multiple users to both post and edit each others texts), photo galleries, group calendars, links and forums. Think of openmute as the yahoo.group for radical cultural workers.
Projects that help produce other projects can produce, proliferate, and
document rich and complex lineages of radical culture without clear beginnings or endings.The projects mentioned in this article all exist differently
and produce different ends. However, each attempts to provide us with
the means to achieve similar goals: enabling small pockets of
political and cultural resistance to communicate and to perform more successfully the projects we are already involved in and to expand those efforts into larger communities. When there is a commitment to building radical culture and resistance, these platforms only help us expand in the right direction.