To Serve Your Culture: Art Servers Unlimited at the ICA

By David Whittaker, 21 January 2004

Art Servers Unlimited puts Internet dogmas to the test

Art Servers Unlimited. Why ART servers? Because politics and society are too important to be left to politically-correct politicians and self-serving sociologists; and art is the most satisfying and singularly comprehensive way to address all the issues head-on. Why UNLIMITED? Because diversity in all things, especially culture in a corporate age, is essential, and unless someone fights to maintain it, it'll disappear into homogeneity as big business steam-rollers through the Web.

to serve your cultureThis conference comes at a seminal period in the Internet's evolution. The initial mavericks are having to close down as early support comes to an end and, as a second generation begins its adventures, there is hope that a new breed of enthusiastic and flexible backers will fund the next round of initiatives. Echoing the hard lessons learned from our own country's National Lottery, Rasa Smite, of Latvia's OZOne net radio, suggested a shift of emphasis from large-scale infrastructure projects to open-ended, day-to-day support for small-scale organisations, who are "that invisible part of the communication which often works most effectively," and make creative use of every last penny, instead of propping up bureaucratic overheads.*

Following the previous day's closed discussions, where the main issues were debated among the participants themselves, the public presentations were divided into four panel sessions covering institutions, netcasting, 'growing your own' (server), and experimental technology. Debate roamed from the central question of public and/or commercial support to the role of various flavours of institution in the birth and sustenance of projects, to the use and abuse of technology in the name of art, activism, or simply 'because it's there' - not to mention a few pointed observations about those lucky enough to have benevolent sponsors, such as Soros's Open Society Institute or the host institution itself. Unexpectedly, the stifling online curatorial policies of big institutions in general and the ICA's cripplingly slow site in particular were roundly condemned by its departing new media director, Sholto Ramsay. Rasa Smite dryly observed that "we can't rely on art institutions as their agenda is their own survival and image". to serve your cultureAs the hype that dogged the early years of the Net dies down, far from being an alienating technology, the Net now, more than ever, seems to be realising its disputed claims of strengthening communities and enabling those previously overlooked, due to geography, age or gender, to participate in a range of cultural activities. But whether it involves remote artists in the villages of Germany's Lower Saxony getting their first taste of web connectivity (Kunstserver), Slovenian DJs competing for the same audience as London's cluberati (ministry:of:x-periment), or Sheffield's anarchic recyclers making art with redundant technology (Redundant Technology Initiative), much of it would never have happened without philanthropic support from private and public bodies. Now that some support is being withdrawn, or at least becoming harder to find, the question is whether such initiatives can survive. Or indeed if they should in their present form: eager to preserve the independent spirit of the Net, yet only too aware how much corporate sponsorship can ease the considerable costs of maintaining a web presence, participants' experience proved the dream of 'universal access' to be nothing if not expensive. The only single answer to emerge was that no single solution fits all sizes - the necessary co-existence of funding models, both commercial and otherwise, means few can afford to be precious about principles if they want to survive.

Along with those issues which have always dogged traditional art, such as accusations of only serving an elite audience, and doubts about whether 'important' work can ever be created through 'official' patronage, the primary problem for net producers collectively is that if it really is the best opportunity to realise Beuys's 'global social sculpture', who's going to finance it? Although Pit Schultz sarcastically contended that "the only way to assure our continued uncensored presence online is to buy the bandwidth and run our own nets", the economic pragmatism of other online producers (such as Frederic Madre, who decided to place his (French) Pleine-Peau site on a cheaper U.S. server) sits uneasily with the surprisingly 'nationalistic' streak displayed by others in what is supposedly a global environment, and illustrates how new media still has to face some of old media's problems. to serve your cultureCan artists survive without becoming subsidised guinea-pigs for hi-tech industrials? Can the Internet's founding ethos remain samizdat- rather than sales-oriented? The answer seemed to be a cautious and compromised 'yes,' and organisers Manu Luksch and Armin Medosch can claim a notable success in what all scientists know to be the most important area of research: not providing answers but asking the right questions.

David Whittaker: Xwhittakerd AT hotmail.comX

*This idea has crystallised into the 'Xchange Unlimited' fund. For more details go to: []

backspace []C3 Center []Channel/Artec [] Dbonanzah []e-lab [] Ellipsis.Net [] Head-Space [] HyperMedia Research Centre [] ICA New Media Centre [] []Kirklees Media Centre []Kulturserver NRW []Ljubljana Digital Media Lab []Lovebytes []Makrolab , Media Research Foundation []ministry:of:x-periment []Pararadio []Pleine Peau []ProteinTV []Redundant Technology Initiative []Silverserver []t0 Public Netbase []The Stefan Batory Foundation []xchange /ozone []yourserver []