It was flattering to get 25 attendees to a workshop on Web 2.0 in Barcelona. The workshop had been scheduled for 11:00 in the morning on a Saturday, which is early for Catalonians. (Barcelona is a city where you can walk the streets at 11:00 at night and run into a group of 50 people out roller-blading for fun.)
I had been invited to talk about Web 2.0 at Kosmopolis, a unique conference on the arts I will expand on a bit later on in this article. I took advantage of the open-ended subject to speculate wildly about the future of the arts, and wrote an article directly aimed at the conference with the title Characteristics of new media in the Internet age (best accessed through its wiki).
Discussions among authors of what they need online
Judging from the concerns expressed by the audience last night, and by participants in a workshop this morning, Web 2.0 is very much alive among writers and journalists. They want to draw in their readers and bring more voices online. In general, the people I heard from have jobs or spend a major part of their lives generating content, but they are not connected to major institutions with a lot of money and expertise to throw at online sites.
I tried to elicit from them why hearing from their readers was so important to them. Were they driven by the idealistic motive (expressed so often by Internet activists and free software proponents in the circles I travel in) to give a forum to people of many countries, cultures, and income brackets?
For my attendees, the goals were more practical and personal. First, they wanted to make sure people were reading their work. Hearing back from readers let them know that what they were spending so much time on was worthwhile. Second, they know their articles can be improved by insights and facts supplied by readers. So it’s about attention and quality control–two major factors of the information age. While these motivate the members of the audience to seek to build interactive sites, the long-term effects will be to empower many people.
Tools that let my attendees meld articles, multimedia, and reader commentary simply and quickly are in demand. Current tools require too much programming or administrative skill.
Thus, one amateur author maintains a modest interactive web site through tools cobbled together by her husband. She links to a single video that she places on YouTube. But she can’t use YouTube to build community; for that she needs to do whatever she can with her own site.
The Flickr/YouTube generation of sites bringing Web 2.0 to the general public include some nice tagging and search features, and even a bit of social networking that allows users to share material selectively, but they do not accomplish community building, nor do they allow creative and convenient links between different kinds of content. Perhaps the next major generation of sites will achieve that.
One participant asked whether it would ever be feasible to distribute and read book-length texts online. I mentioned the frequently-aired view that e-books will not take off until a non-proprietary format such as OpenReader is adopted. An open format can ensure interoperability and continued development of useful features. I also pointed out that all the common multimedia and document formats were tied down by patents and other licensing requirements.
Participants at the workshop were also concerned about moving the creative process online (and involving many people in the process), improving literacy, and finding new motivation to continue writing in a medium where distribution is unlikely to produce much payment.
Billed as “an international festival of literature,” Kosmopolis is a nearly unclassifiable happening that is run every two years by a nearly unclassifiable institution, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona. I was invited thanks to a colleague named David Casacuberta, whom I met through joint online political work on Internet freedom and international development.
David explained to me that the CCCB’s basic funding comes from the Barcelona government, which regardless of the party in power maintains a commitment to bringing the latest in the arts to its region. Kosmopolis itself is funded by those who benefit from gaining exposure there: for instance, when it is dominated by authors, the publishers toss in some money.
I asked very detailed questions about funding because I wanted to find out whom
Kosmopolis is aimed at pleasing–what forces have to show ultimate approval of the topics selected. What I glean from the answers is that the organizers of Kosmopolis have a remarkably free choice of subjects and artists. Their only constraint is to put together a collection of performances, talks, and exhibits that continues to attract a crowd (which they accomplished today, expecting well over a thousand attendees).
Variety is definitely the conference’s attraction; in fact, it turns into something of a circus at times. A possible weakness of the variety is a lack of synergy. It’s hard to say what the collection of leading Russian and Eastern European authors has to do with cartooning, or what cartooning has to do with slam poetry, or what any of those have to, for that matter, with the effect of Web 2.0 on the arts. The point is to visit all these events and let them swirl around in one’s mind for a while; a lot of people in the region seem to want to do that, especially in a party atmosphere.
Except for a few of the conference’s film offerings (they included a number of films that set literary texts or discussed literary figures), aesthetic pleasure was not a leading criterion for inclusion. Humor there was aplenty, and mordant challenges to political assumptions across the board. But the results were not pretty.
In fact, the most interesting presentation I saw, a video/stage performance called Whatever Happened to Colin Powell? by Manchester-based artist Robin Deacon, started out with the performer committing an act on stage so revolting that I won’t even describe it here. The sense of discomfort he produced on a very visceral level led on to a more lasting and effective sense of discomfort by the end of his performance, concerning the meaning of race and power. (Powell’s own testimony on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a masterful act of performance art in itself.)
When Deacon first performed his work, not long after Powell’s resignation, its intent might be seen as clearly political. Now that Powell’s career and trials at the State Department have receded into history, Deacon’s work can be seen more broadly as a cultural investigation into what it takes for anyone, of any race or social class, to achieve success in a power-obsessed society–and whether the choices we make to conform to society are rational or deeply compromise our selves.
Does art matter to technologists? Leading game developer Chris Crawford, who spoke at Kosmopolis today (and pulled off a performance that could rank with nearly any avant-garde stage personality) believes that art matters. He said that games won’t achieve their potential until either game programmers learn to become artists or artists learn to become game programmers. He placed his bet on the artists learning to make the leap first.
What people are seeking online goes beyond information now and calls for something that makes a significant change in their lives–they want to change their routine. And if nothing else, the art that makes its appearance at Kosmopolis is about going beyond the routine.