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Articles - 25 November 2006

Valuing online communications and documentation in a global market

Presenter: Avi Amesbury
Verge: 11th National Ceramics Conference
Brisbane, 10 - 14 July 2006

Valuing online communications and documentation in a global market will be presented in two parts. This first section will draw on my personal experience as a potter and will give an overview of how I became involved in online communications - and the impact this has had on my professional practice. The second part of the presentation will draw from my role at Craft Australia as Communications Manager and will look at the notion of 'connecting the sector', discuss the growing need for online research facilities and the role of craft organisations in a rapidly changing world.

The internet became a major focus for me during two 'moments' in my life. The first was a late night conversation with a web enthusiast. We had began throwing around an idea of webcaming a series of wood firings that were part of my project work as a student at the Australian National University in Canberra. An old '94 Centrus MacIntosh had been sitting in the corner of the office for months - just what we needed to host the necessary software. We tracked down a webcam that would work with such an old computer through eBay. A couple of hundred dollars later and the webcam was up and running.

The wood firings never were webcamed - which is a story in itself - and the cam found a home in the ceramics department at the ANU and is still there today - 5 years later. Thus began my introduction into the internet and websites.

Avicam.com, the website, took on a life of its own when I went to Hong-Ik University in Seoul as an exchange student. I kept an online travel diary of the places I went, the people I met and the amazing Korean ceramics I discovered. Over the years Avicam has had a number of rebuilds and has developed to support ceramic artist, provide a vehicle for publishing papers and essays, and features a gallery area of artists' works.

Ceramics this month (previously known as Yakatak) the electronic newsletter was set up originally to be as a discussion list for us 'students' to stay in touch after graduation and to help one another with technical difficulties. What I found was colleagues were sending me the information and asking if I would post it to the list. I started to 'digest' the material which then developed into a newsletter featuring articles and opportunities. Yakatak now has an audience outside my known networks.

While a student I became involved in the space between project. The project initially started with a discussion between four artists who were the Heads of Workshops of ceramic departments in four different universities and in four different parts of the world, about the ways in which there could be collaborations and connections between themselves and their students. The collaborators were Janet DeBoos, The Australian National University; Antje Scharfe , Halle, Burg Giebichenstein, Germany; Georgette Zirbes University of Michigan, Ann Arbour, USA; Suzanne Wolfe, University of Hawwai'i, Honululu, USA; and then there was us - their students.

The theme of the project was to respond to the concept of the space between, whether it was our physical, virtual or conceptual space. The project ran for twelve months and ended in December 2002.

For some of us involved the virtual space of the internet became representational of the space between. The place where all participants could come together, at any time, to discuss, critique or exhibit work. We had wiped from our thoughts the existence of geographical boundaries. Our aim was to create a cyberspace between the four universities.

A number of facilities were created on the website that we thought would facilitate communication and the development of ideas.

A forum was created where topics could be posted and discussed by the students involved in the project. This allowed each of us to comment on each other's ideas and to forge individual collaborative processes.

A chat room was set up offering different rooms where different conversations could happen. It was a venue where all collaborators could come together, simultaneously, and participate in planned discussion groups.

The webcam was to be incorporated into the project by caming our meetings (we hoped other Universities would follow suit).

And finally an exhibition, a space to have a virtual exhibition once the project was completed by all the groups.

The use of the internet to bridge geographical distances had interesting outcomes. Early on in the project it became increasingly clear that students did not utilise the facilities as a means of communicating nor was the website being used as we had envisaged. The focus of the makers remained the making ... and in this instance the making was in clay, in real materials, in the real world. Apart from the initial interest in the forum very few students from any of the universities became involved in the creation of a cyberspace.

What did become apparent was time and language were as much a boundary as geography. Although we had assumed the internet would overcome any geographical boundaries we had not considered the restraints time and language would impose upon the project.

The second 'moment' when the internet became a major focus was writing the paper "Is cyberspace a revolutionary realm? Or is it governed by the old rules?"

Intent on doing all my research on the internet I became totally absorbed, looking at cyber-communities and their ideologies. The issues raised were fascinating and thought-provoking.

I looked at the open source community and found that they were paramount in opposing and challenging the ideology of both propriety software and copyright.

The development of open source can be traced back to the 'Real Programmers' who traditionally came from an engineering and physics background. Richard Stallman, who was part of a software-sharing community at MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, Stallman recollects: " ... Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program." 1

In the 1980's this situation changed drastically. The modern computers of the era had their own operating systems. None were free software and a nondisclosure agreement had to be signed to get an executable copy. This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbour. A co-operating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of propriety software was - If you share with your neighbour, you are a pirate.

Stallman believed one of the first things needed to combat this change was a FREE operating system and he embarked upon the GNU project. The goal of GNU was to give users freedom and what became essential to the project was distribution terms that would prevent GNU software from being turned into propriety software. The method used was called CopyLeft.

The central idea of CopyLeft is that everyone is given permission to run the program, copy the program, modify the program and to distribute various versions - but no permission to add restriction of their own. Thus, the crucial freedoms that define free software are guaranteed to everyone who has a copy; they become inalienable rights. CopyLeft is using copyright law, but flipping it over to serve the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of a means of privatizing software, it becomes a means of keeping software free.

As we have seen with open source and CopyLeft both communities has created new rules, giving software programmes back to the community and a means of preventing it from becoming propriety software.

Crackers were another fascinating community in cyberspace who challenged my understanding of ownership and intellectual property laws. Crackers were being defined as unethical, irresponsible and a serious danger to society. However, as Denning points out in Concerning Hackers who Break into Computer Systems, research is showing something quite different. There is an ethical conflict emerging between bureaucratic tendencies to hoard information and the cracker ethic of acquiring and sharing information.

If it were possible to relay the full story of Acid Phreak and Phiber Optik I would as the story becomes like a Monty Python skit of the 70's. However, time limits me to a brief outline.

Robert Riggs, a computer 'hacker' in his early 20s, discovered that he could easily gain access to an account on a computer belonging to Bell Telephone Company. The account was highly insecure and access did not require a password. Whilst exploring, Riggs discovered a word-processing document detailing procedures and definitions of terms relating to the Emergency 911 system.

Riggs knew his discovery would be of interest to Craig Neidorf, an amateur journalist whose electronically distributed publication, Phrack, was devoted to articles of interest to computer hackers. The E911 document was published in February 1989. Some months later both Riggs and Neidorf were contacted and questioned by the Secret Service, and all systems that might contain the E 911 document were seized.

What followed, in 'Operation Sun Devil', was the US Secret Service issuing twenty-seven search warrants in fourteen cities, the shutting down of numerous computer bulletin boards, the confiscation of forty computers and the seizure of 23,000 disks. Ironically the hackers had neither removed (copied only) nor damaged anyone's data.

The over-reaction to the situation is best described by John Perry Barlow, "In fairness, one can imagine the government's problem ... If I were trying to terminate the operations of a witch coven, I'd probably seize everything in sight. How would I tell the ordinary household brooms from the getaway vehicles?" 2

I discovered that cyber-cultures are as diverse in actions as they are in their ideologies - Richard Stallman and the GNU project, CopyLeft, Phil Zimmerman, a leading figure in the fight for privacy with his software program Pretty Good Privacy, the pirate community, crackers and culture jammers.

Serious issues are being raised by these communities. How easy is it to establish the elements of a theft crime when the 'property' in question is information? Can anyone morally claim to own knowledge itself? Can ideas themselves, not merely there expression, be 'owned'? Can old rules be made to work - either by grotesque expansion or by force?

These experiences have opened my mind to another world, or should I say 'other' worlds. I have gained an inkling of insight into the capacity of the internet and the new ideologies it brings with it, making me rethink my own. As the technology of printing altered the 'modern' world so too has this new technology we call the internet.

The impact this has had on my professional practice? I understand that the web is the communication tool of modern life. It is how I stay connected and networked. I use the internet to communicate, to document and to promote. It is how I do business - I no longer (or rarely) use the telephone. It is the single most important tool in being found in a world that extends past my physical and geographical boundaries.

Research shows that arts organisations and artists are turning to the internet to enter the global market place. The web has become a tool for international promotion, communication and e-commerce. Research also shows that students and artists are using the internet as a research tool and there is a demand for good documentation and research material to be available. With unsustainable funding for the crafts there has been limited printed material to document the history, theoretical discussion and development of the contemporary craft and design movement in Australia over the past two decades. The remaining part of this paper will discuss how online communication and documentation can respond to these trends and create opportunities for the sector.

I am currently working as Communications Manager at Craft Australia - the national peak advocacy organisation for professional craft and design in Australia. Craft Australia is part of the Australian Craft and Design Organisations network (ACDO). Communication with the sector is facilitated through the Craft Australia website, our monthly online electronic newsletter - 716 the Research Centre and a biannual national online forum.

Craft Australia uses online communications as a way of "connecting the sector".

The Craft Australia website is a critical tool in 'connecting the sector' and supporting and promoting Australian craft and design. The website creates an information hub and is a gateway into our professional craft sector. It is an accessible resource for makers, a tool for researchers, a resource for documenting the contemporary craft movement, and it strengthens the visibility of Australian professional craft and design as a sector both nationally and overseas. This visibility is paramount to our sustainability (by 'our' I mean all of us - the makers, the writers, the curators, the administrators), and in particular when advocating to government agencies and funding bodies. It is important for makers, who often work in isolation, to see that the sector is strong, visible and moving forward.

716 craft·design is the Craft Australia electronic newsletter. It is a free publication and is sent to subscribers monthly. 716 is a vehicle to communicate with the sector and to market Australian contemporary craft and design nationally and overseas.

Through feature articles in 716 we are able to make visible and promote the diverse range of programs, exhibitions and talent within Australia. The newsletter informs the sector of current advocacy and political issues; general news from the sector; national exhibitions, projects, conferences, festivals and opportunities.

The success of 716 is highlighted by the growth in subscriptions - increasing from 388 in 2003 to over 1500 in 2006, with an average rate of 2 subscribers per day. Our statistics also show that 716 has attracted an international audience with readers from the US, Canada, UK, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Republic of Korea, Singapore, China, India and Hong Kong, to name a few.

The first Craft Australia national online forum, Interact: Contemporary craft in a digital future, was presented on the Craft Australia website as an alternative to a 'real - space' venue. The initiative was innovative in its approach to economic restraints of both organisations and makers, to distance and audience participation, and resulted in stimulated debate on current issues in the contemporary crafts across Australia. The forum is still hosted on the Craft Australia website and is indexed in the Craft Australia Research Centre.

Craft Australia is currently gearing up for its second national online forum in August this year. Youth@craft·design draws from the outcomes of Interact and will focus on young and emerging practitioners and will discuss issues they face as makers entering a professional practice. Material gathered from the forum will help identify the needs of emerging practitioners, successful directions and pathways to maintain a sustainable craft and design practice and identify the resources and infrastructure needed to achieve economic outcomes. The outcomes of Youth@craft·design will form the basis for lobbying government and relevant agencies on the changing nature of professional practice in Australia.

To summarise, the three models used by Craft Australia in 'connecting the sector' - the website, the newsletter and the national online forum - open up new opportunities. These tools present our artists, projects, programs and exhibitions to a global audience - millions of people, in a way that could not have been economically possible - just yesterday! They help consolidate the sector and highlight the significant role of the crafts in the new 'creative economy'. It presents an opportunity for writers, curators, educators and professional makers - from all mediums, to come together - irrelevant of financial or geographical restraints, to discuss and debate issues in the contemporary crafts.

Craft Australia's online Research Centre was set up in response to the growing need for online repositories of theoretical documentation and research material.

There have been limited resources to document the history, the debates and the development of the craft and design movement in Australia over the past 2 decades. We have seen publications limited to the 'catalogue style' - a picture of the artists' work on one side and a short artist statement on the other. Technology has made huge changes to the way we view the world and interact with it. This has affected the way we, as craft practitioners, make, promote and sell our work and how the hand-crafted object is placed in the twenty-first century.

This is evident in Kevin Murray's recently published book Make the Common Precious where he looks at the emergence of craft practitioners using recycled common materials in their practice - and where he uses categories such as Gatherers, Fossickers, Gleaners and Liberators. He states in his article of the same name - Make the Common Precious, published on Craft Culture, "In Australia at the moment, there is such a prevalence of artists working in this manner that it verges on being a movement."

The steady withdrawal of funding from education and cultural institutions and the lack of importance placed on our cultural history - and in particular the contemporary crafts, has helped create a gap in the discourse and documentation of the contemporary crafts in Australia. With the rise of the 'review' we have seen a decline in critical writing and discourse in the crafts.

Tanya Harrod, an art historian from the UK who recently spoke in Australia, found - "The relatively weak identity of the (20th) twentieth century craft movement as a whole makes (this) - placing craft practice in a series of historical contexts - an interesting task as throughout the (20th) twentieth century the crafts appear to have reinvented themselves, or been reinvented." 3

Although we are seeing publications emerge - like Kevin Murray's, Make the Common Precious, selected articles and essays from Craft Culture and monographs through the Living Treasures program there is an ongoing need for critical writing and research material to be available to historians, researchers, writers and educators. Numerous debates have arisen - The impact of industrialisation? Is there a need to define a critical craft language? Can craftspeople offer a cultural critique? How does craft fit into the history of modernism?

The aim of the Craft Australia research centre is to attract critical thinkers and researchers to publish papers through this resource. Having the material available online which is easily accessed, searchable and focuses on the crafts is an essential ingredient in fostering critical writing and discourse. Currently, the Research Centre has indexed a number of significant conferences, published a selection of papers from those conferences and is an access point to information - where the conference was held, if there is a hard-copy publication or if the papers have been published online through other organisations. Strategies are being developed to encourage researchers to publish papers through the Craft Australia online Research Centre.

As the final chapter I would like to bring attention to the research undertaken by Craft Australia and the outcomes published in the National Craft Mapping Project: Service provision for professional craft artists and designer/makers report. "The project was designed to provide an analysis of what makers require for the ongoing professional development of their careers and to scope the breadth of the services available to them through professional craft organisations." 4

The report shows a high proportion of the practitioners surveyed have access to computers, are computer literate and receive email newsletters - across all ranges of practice from emerging to senior artists; there is an increasing demand for online representation by professional practitioners - either through personal websites or for organisations to expand their online member services in this area; and a need for assistance with marketing themselves and their artwork.

This need to have online access to information and services is highlighted by statistics drawn from user patterns on the Craft Australia website. The opportunities and events calendar in 716 and the directory of organisations and services on the Craft Australia website are consistently the most visited areas.

This leaves us with more questions than answers. Do craft organisations need to revisit the way they communicate? Is the 'printed' word still relevant for ephemeral information? What do we need to print? Craft Culture offers one model where Craft Victoria publish commissioned essays and papers online, and then annually select a series of the works for hard-copy reproduction.

Current trends show that craft organisations use their website as an information source about their organisation and as a marketing and promotional tool for their exhibitions, projects and programs. How will the increasing demand for website representation by makers affect the internal mechanisms of the craft organisation? How will the relationship between organisation and practitioner be developed to meet these new trends and expectations?

Importantly, resources dedicated to websites and online services will require consideration. In this world where we inhabit information our audiences demand active, up-to-date and useful dialogue.

It is not enough only to consider resources - financial or human, a cultural shift is required. The shift requires an understanding of how the modern world has changed and the ability to embrace it.

Avi Amesbury

Footnotes

  1. Raymond, Eric, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar
  2. Hammill, Chuck From Crossbows to Cryptography: Thwarting the State Via Technology, The Future of Freedom Conference, 1987 (Cypherpunks ftp site) http://www.totse.com/en/technology/cyberspace_the-new-frontier/crostech.html
  3. Harrod, Tanya, Reading ceramics after Modernism /research/20060223.php
  4. National Craft Mapping Project: Service provision for professional craft artists and designer/makers, Foreword, page5

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