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Joe Dumit: Expressing the CAVES

30 Nov

What’s one difference between artists and scientists? Artists don’t sit still. This is not the question Joe Dumit set out to answer when he proposed bringing a group of dancers, sculptors, writers, and others to explore the virtual reality environment of UC Davis’s Keck CAVES. But, Dumit—whose own research focuses on the anthropology of science, technology, medicine, and media—says the CAVES’ scientists “were continually struck by how much the artists physically moved within the CAVE environment, how much of their bodies were in motion, in contrast to how little they (the scientists) tend to move while doing their research.” The artists, it seems, were used to doing physical work in imagined spaces.

Expressing the Caves, co-designed by Dumit, sculptor Robin Hill and geologist Dawn Sumner, was originally planned as a daylong session for 18 artists and computer scientists to brainstorm new ideas, but thanks to the exigencies of scheduling, it morphed into an ongoing series of visits by individuals or small groups. Whatever was lost in general conversation, was made up for, Dumit says, by the chance to focus on specific projects. The artists, needless to say, loved having more time at the controls.

Data in motion, according to Dumit, was what the artists were most intrigued with, and it’s an experience the CAVES are uniquely positioned to deliver. Initially a collaboration between earth and computer scientists, the CAVE—3 walls and a floor equipped with stereoscopic displays and various tracking devices—has allowed researchers to seemingly fly around, through, and under a Laguna Beach landslide, and examine a 100 year history of California’s seismic activity from a vantage point close to the center of the earth. Informative yes, but also visually stunning. Immersive worlds, wildly intersecting planes, data points colored a pleasingly grassy green: Artists have already recognized the possibilities.

According to UCDavis professor of sculpture Robin Hill, the CAVES are  almost a genre unto themselves. “I could not help but think of it as a performance space of sorts, as the authentic image experience takes place there and no where else,” she says. “No forms of documentation do it justice, as one’s perception/understanding is completely dependent on the technology.”

What sort of art is now emerging from the CAVES? Semi-solid might be one description. Dancers doing contact improvisation maintain balance by sharing weight. What happens when the dancers are miles apart and represented by three-dimensional avatars moving at a slight time delay? Using Remote Collaboration techniques pioneered by Oliver Kreylos—one of the architects of the Keck CAVES’ visualization software—and based on hacked game technology (Microsoft Kinects), a group of visiting dancers and CAVE scientists have been exploring the idea of weightless weight and the sensory requirements of silent communication.

Perhaps because it allows data to be viewed from so many angles simultaneously, the CAVE seems to inspire a similar mashup of disciplines and approaches. Hill brought one of the images of snowflakes she’s been exploring with mathematician Janko Gravner to the CAVE where she viewed it as an object that one might fly through. Having seen the inside of the flake, she is now working on translating that image for a 3D printer to render in sculptural form.

For a virtual installation possibly titled Take Me To Your Dream, San Francisco writer/artist Meredith Tromble has compiled “ a vortex”  of dream elements from the biographies of computer scientists, geologists, and mathematicians which participants will choose and arrange in virtual environments, “subject,” says Dumit, “to a dream-appropriate degree of chance and surprise.” Once home from Antarctica, Tromble’s collaborator, UC geologist Dawn Sumner will be creating the vortex and programming it to replace text with images.

And what have the scientists come away with? The artists’ propensity for movement created programming challenges, Dumit admits, but also generated new gestures, commands, and playback features. Dumit’s own project—fitting for the organizer of all this collaborative inquiry—is a study of “research presence” among CAVE users. It was inspired, he says by the vocabulary used during the brainstorming sessions. It’s one thing to be comfortable moving in imaginary space; another to find words to describe the where there.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Anastasia Hill: Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism

8 Nov

Arguably, a psychonaut is anyone who’s ever experienced REM sleep—or more particularly, anyone who’s tried to pinpoint the coordinates of a city they’ve only visited in dreams. The term psychonaut, or mind-sailor, seems to have been first used–-admiringly—in a 1970 essay by Ernst Jünger on drugs and inebriation. Efforts to categorize and codify routes to trance states, however, date to early Buddhist and Hindu texts and possibly to the walls of pre-historic caves. They encompass philosophical investigations of Greek drama and laboratory attempts to discover why—physiologically speaking—Jimi Hendrix might have seen a purple haze and not an olive green one.

The course readings for Anastasia Yumeko Hill’s Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism (UCSB, Winter 2011) for the most part span only the 19th  through 21st centuries —an exception is Euripides’ Bacchae. But they cover the exploration of deliberately altered consciousness from a number of compass points: art, philosophy, chemistry, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, anthropology, spirituality, and media studies. To name some. Among the syllabus authors: sociologist/critic Walter Benjamin, dolphin researcher John C Lilly, painter and media artist Teresa Wennberg, and Zen Buddhist abbot Joan Halifax.

The kind of paradox encountered when the mind tries to study itself was elegantly stated by Benjamin in his 1929 essay, Surrealism (one of the course readings) “The most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance.”  Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism attempted both—pairing class discussion of “Trance and Form,” “Intoxication and Surrealism” and “Psychotechnology” with field trips to a variety of immersive experiences including a ritual sweat in a traditional sweat lodge and an acoustic sound bath in the Integraton, a geo-magnetically enhanced wooden dome built on the edge of the Mojave desert by aircraft mechanic turned ufologist George Van Tassel.

Hill’s survey of Psychonautic literature begins with psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzger who faced a paradox similar to those Benjamin described when trying to program an LSD experience. A subject might have difficulty remembering an intention, or balk when reminded by the bodiless head of Ishtar. Altered realities demand altered language: Leary and his colleagues found it in Tibetan Book of the Dead whose specialized vocabulary reinforced the idea of trip as initiation. Hill pairs them with contemporary writers–Technosis author and Wired contributor Erik Davis (“Spiritual Cyborg”) and UCSD new media theorist, Lev Manovich—who look to digital paradigms to suggest broader questions of aesthetics, perception, and social reality.

Fittingly the course finale was an outdoor festival in Isla Vista—attended, Hill says, by about 200 people. The 19 students, whose backgrounds included film and media, art, philosophy, and environmental studies, presented group projects oriented around themes covered during the semester: Dionysia, 19th century Mesmerism, Surrealism, Psychedelia, and Techno-Spiritualism. The idea, Hill says, was to “give a sense of how we experience and construct meaning around culturally and historically specific variations” of altered consciousness.

Drawing on writing by Edgar Allen Poe and working  with a student outside the course who practices hypnotism, the Mesmer group “reproduced Mesmer’s salon wherein ‘patients’ could receive treatment from a hypnotist accompanied by two of the students dressed in 19th century garb. They also created an oversized see-saw with a large mirror erected in the center, blocking each see-sawer’s view of the other and creating a very disorienting spacial experience.”

The festival also had a guest star, artist Gary Hill.  In a workshop with students before the event he showed a piece of his concurrent NYC exhibition of surf, death, tropes & tableaux: The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment—an installation of sculpture, painting and manipulated video, accompanied by mediated viewing devices. Gary Hill, a pioneer of new media art and “electronic linguistics” is also Anastasia’s father. As a girl she appeared in some of his works. In a time-honored generational reversal– though one that almost always involves some alteration of consciousness—he now appeared in hers. At the festival he performed sound and voice improvisations to student videos and invited visitors to experiment with handheld wands that transform the user’s gestures into a remotely synthesized music.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Catherine Liu: Learning From Irvine

2 Nov

In 1972 “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” was filmed at UC Irvine—an apt choice not only because William Pereira, chief architect of  newly-built campus-on-a-hill, was a sometime Hollywood art director. To many, the movie’s scenes of shaggy but kindly-eyed slave-apes toiling in a landscape of stark modernist monoliths encapsulated a popular view of the campus and its surrounding community. Irvine was synonymous with sterile corporate planning, and both the university architecture and the Irvine corporation’s policies were seen as hostile to freedom and creativity along with unkempt appearances.

According to Catherine Liu, UCI professor of Film & Media Studies, that view has not changed much. “Usually people denigrate the plannedness of this community,” she says. “I find it visually not very stimulating, and it’s also kind of awful the way the Irvine company controls things. But you have to keep in mind that there’s a definite utopian aspiration—for green spaces, for public spaces. There’s a lot more park space and natural landscape here than in, say, Newport Beach And the vision that we have of homogeneity is really wrong. It’s become one of the most diverse small cities in America—because of the changing immigrant population.”

1972 was also the year that architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour first published Learning from Las Vegas, the book that inspired Liu’s and Cole Aker’s project, Learning from Irvine. Like the book’s authors, who carefully examined that most maligned and ubiquitous Western landscape, the roadside commercial strip—and suspended the usual judgments about visual clutter and vulgar ornamentation in order to understand how and why these features functioned—Liu’s ongoing  project takes a closer look at the supposedly bland or creepily authoritarian landscapes of suburban Orange County.

“Certain things shape the way Irvine looks,” Liu says. “The demise of the city and the rise of suburbia has often been deplored as the demise of the intellectual and the rise of the organization man. But if you actually look at the 50s and 60s—at the popular discourse as well as the academic discourse–there’s a lot of fear about conformity. Irvine is usually seen as a space designed for the white-collar worker -conformist, but I’m really interested in how and why there’s this incredibly robust support for a public university at this site, during the same period.”

Learning from Irvine grew out of Liu’s own interdisciplinary interests. She names post-1945 American intellectual history, the history of built environments, corporate modernism, visual studies. “And institutional history—that has been the basis of a lot of my work for the past 5 years, including the more political work I’ve done about defending public and higher education.” There was a time, she says  “when the public university actually stood on the side of the people of California, and it seems as if that has been sundered. I’m interested to see if we can read some of these histories against the grain.”

Among the things Liu is looking at in examining the Irvine Master Plan, and its early architects, Pereira and David Neuman, are “the ways in which we erase local histories” Part of her inspiration, she says comes from Joan Didion’s Where I Was From,  particularly  the essays about de-industrialization in Orange County, and California’s inability to think about itself as a place with a history.

For its first event, in April 2010, Learning from Irvine brought Neuman, now campus architect at University of Virginia back to Orange County for a talk titled “Learning from Denise, Bob, and Bill: A UCI Lesson.” Neuman, who was UCI’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Planning in the 1980s, commissioned buildings by well known innovators including Venturi (the Bob of his lecture) and Frank Gehry.

“These architecture-driven projects were deeply related to William Pereira’s buildings,” Liu says. “Neuman and Pereira both felt that architecture is meant to serve but at the same time Neuman was willing to give these young architects a chance to design something that would be challenging.”

One way he was able to relate the buildings—and perhaps cushion the challenge–was with green space. “Neuman,” Liu says, “spent probably a lot of his budget on landscaping and creating a context for his buildings.“ Nonetheless, the Gehry building he commissioned is a prime example of erased history. It was torn down in 2007, not quite two decades after it was built.

UCI has had only three chief architects in its fifty years, but that’s been ample time for styles and approaches—corporate modernism,  post-modernism, contextualism—to fall in and out of repute. Looking back at the building of the campus, Liu sees connections that haven’t always been recognized. Neuman and Pereira, she says, “defined a sense of the active, participatory white collar worker, someone who’s trying to forge aesthetically challenging, architecturally challenging spaces in this public university. That architectural vision—maybe it shapes a sense of visual conformity, but it also shapes challenges to and anxieties about visual conformity and large organizations. That’s something my students and I are really interested in”

Irvine’s unexpected challenges to visual conformity are also the subject of an exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum this fall: Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California 1964-1971. For artists including Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, and Frank Stella, the campus frequently dismissed as a corporate monolith served instead as a blank canvas. Located, Eden-like, far from the art world’s hubs—and blessed with California light and clothing-optional weather–it offered an ideal experimental climate. In their work of the period, materials, surface, line and political engagement took unexpected and influential directions.

Liu sees the exhibit tying in with Learning from Irvine’s investigation of what actually happened on campus in its earliest days. Partnering with the museum, the project will present films in the Humanities Gateway building’s McCormick screening. room by two of the exhibit’s artists: Richard Newton—whose performances and installations create luminous landscapes from stale bread or motel bathrooms–and Gary Beydler who turned familiar L.A. icons –freeways, the Venice pier—into lingering mysteries.  “The campus is not very accessible or open to outsiders,” Liu says, “so this seemed like a natural fit. Laguna Museum of Art has no screening facility, and we have this new bijou theatre”

Asked if her project’s various aspects can be described as “proximity studies,”—a term current in  several disciplines including art, physics, social science, and real estate—Liu  explains: “For me it’s better to think of it as local histories, institutional histories, political discourse–these are things that have been motivating me, and I think proximity studies is just a summary of all that. It translates into artistic practice. I’m not an artist and we’re not necessarily an arts organization, but we definitely have this very powerful interdisciplinary project. I like to  understand it as the organization of spaces and the organization of histories.“

The goal, she says, is not only establishing better links between the academic world and other overlapping communities, but identifying “what it is we’re defending when we’re defending public higher education and public space.”

From Spanish Land Grant to cattle baron fiefdom to embattled family trust to Donald Bren’s sole ownership, Irvine-the- acreage has a complicated history. “One of the things that Joan Didion points out” Liu says, “is that unlike the big ranch owners of Santa Barbara, the Irvine family never sold off its land piecemeal. This is why it was able to control this area of Orange County–because it kept it in the family. And now its president and CEO Donald Bren is one of the biggest donors to UCI. This has huge problems, but at the same time you have to look at the history of US philanthropy. If we de-fund public universities, these kinds of figures will have much more power in the future. But to say that it’s all bad is to forget the history of why the Irvine family gave this land to the state for a dollar so the UC could build a campus here.”

“I’m not defending the Irvine corporation, but I am saying that planning might allow for positive use of public spaces and preservation. Ever since there were these disastrous public housing projects built in the 50s, The trend in urban studies has been has been to denounce planning. To see it as the will of the elite being imposed on people. My question would be—what if there were a collective agency that had the power of the Irvine corporation to actually think through multiple needs, the uses of space. And to not go through these ad hoc reactive processes by which most of L.A. has been planned—or unplanned? What if we put the Irvine company aside and thought about a public agency, or  about a collective sense of the big picture?”

What if California reinvented itself instead of its history?

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Ken Rogers: Off Peak:

27 Oct

In 1924 when oil was discovered in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills, the city’s westward expansion was just getting underway, and the community of Inglewood, lying southeast of the oil field, was said to be the fastest growing city in the US. Fast but not crowded: Its biggest industry was chinchilla farming. Within a year the oil field was in peak production, its crumpled hills lined with bird-like pump jacks.

 

By 2000 the flow of oil and populations had reversed. The Inglewood field was a dusty hole in a donut of mostly residential development. Well production had dwindled and plans were laid for many of its 1000-plus acres to be reclaimed as parkland. It was a tantalizing prospect, as UCR’s Ken Rogers writes in Off Peak, the collaborative public practice project he’s organized around the oilfield debate. A giant swath of accessible open space would occupy “an elevated geological peak located at the geographic center of the city of Los Angeles.”

 

Instead, the flow reversed again. PXP, the site’s operator, used new prospecting methods to map access to deep reserves in a 21 square mile area. The discovery coincided with the rise in oil prices which led Los Angeles County to ignore plans for the park and permit 600 new wells. One result of the drilling was the venting of fumes that forced the evacuation of surrounding communities.

 

Rogers’ initial involvement with the oilfield was personal. As a resident of an affected neighborhood, he attended meetings that brought together various streams: concerned citizens, environmentalists and community activists. In 2006 a coalition of these group sued PXP and the County, charging violations of environmental standards. As the suit meandered through the courts, Rogers saw an opportunity to support the coalition in a more formal way, through his work with artists using collaborative strategies.

 

He invited Bulbo, a Tijuana, and now Los Angeles, media collective, to create a video documentary about neighborhood response to the oilfields. Bulbo’s methodology is participatory rather than distanced. For a piece about traditional Mexican pottery making, Rogers says, members of collective lived with the potters for several months. Community access to the finished product is not only via internet. In Mexico their videos are screened and distributed in local market stalls, racked beside pirated Hollywood films and telenovelas. Shooting a series of workshops and conversations at various locations around the Baldwin Hills, Bulbo has worked to create a record that will become part of the oilfield neighbors’ own history of themselves. Community screenings are planned for the end of the year.

 

Events took another turn this July when the lawsuit was settled, forcing PXP to drill fewer new wells Oil production, however, will continue until 2028, delaying park plans for decades. What happens in the meantime is the subject of Roger’s next planned event, Off Peak: Reclaiming the Baldwin Hills. The day-in-the-field, which includes an urban hike and a roundtable discussion, will look at means of sustaining the community that Inglewood field unintentionally created.

 

Participants bring expertise with different models of engagement. As a founding member of Los Angeles Urban Rangers, the hike’s leader, Sara Daleiden, creates guides and tools, including walking tours that foster a direct experience of the city’s landscape, both natural and cultural. Lark Galloway-Gilliam grew up in South Los Angeles, the area of the city surrounding the oilfields, and is executive director of Community Health Councils, an organization that advocates for consumer rights, public accountability, and quality healthcare for all residents. Bill Kelley jr. is an art historian, teacher, curator, and critic, whose fields include contemporary Latin American and collaborative art.

 

Fittingly, this art-health-environment colloquy—Rogers calls it a think-tank—will conduct its discussion at the Baldwin Hills Conservancy’s Scenic Overlook, the one piece of the envisioned great park that has materialized. From this green vantage point, with it views to mountains and sea, Rogers hopes a new kind of community action will arise. Instead of finding common ground in being against something, Rogers says, “there’s now the possibility of being for something. There’s the possibility of city residents taking ownership of their immediate environment.”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 4)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

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Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their persepctives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

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PART IV

UCIRA: Jeff, you recently had a project funded on Kickstarter. Can you talk a bit about your experiences with the process?

Jeff: My campaign was for a project that I am still working on called Unlogo, and I actually started it twice.  It is going to be a community-driven video filtering service that filters logos out of videos. The first time it failed, but right after it ended, it was picked up by BoingBoing and a bunch of people contacted me saying that they wanted to support it, so I relaunched it. I felt weird about this because I thought it kind of betrayed the “all or nothing” spirit of Kickstarter, but I did it anyway.

My experience actually wasn’t ideal, but it was my own fault.  As you probably know, on Kickstarter you are encouraged to offer a range or prizes to contributors at different levels — kind of like an NPR pledge drive. I offered prizes like a simple credit on the site, t-shirt, stickers, to a private lesson in computer vision.  I had contributors at every level – I think close to 200 in all.  So I ended up spending over half of the money on the prizes that I had promised to people. So I didn’t really make enough to fund the project, but it did raise the visibility of the project quite a bit and generally got people talking about it, so that helped me in other tangible ways.

The biggest benefit, I think, was the inspiration that came from tons of strangers getting behind my idea.

UCIRA: You also responded to Steve’s question of a few weeks ago with the observation that Kickstarter (and others) may be introducing the concept of support for the arts to a whole new group of people. Who do you imagine this new group to be and how might their participation in arts funding change things?

Jeff:  I’m not sure I have any idea. In my case, I think it was mostly Vimeo and BoingBoing readers, but I don’t know how to generalize that for crowdfunding in general. But in terms of my comments about Steve’s purposefully inflammatory statement (Steve is good at that – like Fox News good), I think I was mostly just conforming to a reputation that I have worked to cultivate with Steve as a pro Internet flame-warrior and arguing against the absurdity of the proposition. To propose that people who contribute their own money to art projects are supporting some right-wing de-funding agenda is like saying that doctors who volunteer in clinics are supporting lack of universal health care. There is no causality there at all, and no proof offered. I don’t think Kickstarter is perfect. I think that it is a great idea, and I know that it has made lots of projects possible that otherwise wouldn’t have been, but in the end, it didn’t really do much for me. It was the statement itself that made me feel the need to defend crowdfunding.

UCIRA: Dan, since UCIRA initially funded your project Who’s Hungry West Hollywood (with Dan Hurlin), you’ve expanded the project to other cities, and have raised a considerable amount of money to support your work. I want to list the funders you credit on your website as introduction to my first question to you (see below). My sense is that individual artists are often in the position of having to raise little sums of money from a great many funders in order to see their work through to completion. Does this list represent the usual scope of fundraising you do in order to see a project happen? How much of your time and creative energy is spent on capital- as opposed to creative development?

Dan: Yes, artists are most often forced to slice the revenue pie into slender pieces.  Still, I firmly believe (and I tell my students and anyone who will listen) that there is enough money out there to fund projects.  Because I have been building this project over a number of iterations for several years, I have gotten better at articulating it to funders (though apparently not to presenters!). At the same time, the project has been building its own archive, and so appears to be more and more substantial, which seems to attract attention.  So, yes, this is the usual scope of grants that I apply for, but the percentage of successful proposals is getting larger and larger.  In addition to the reasons I stated above, I also think that I stumbled into a project that touches a lot of funders’ missions at this cultural moment, whose themes include community engagement, interdisciplinarity, food scarcity, and oral narratives.  I would say my time is pretty evenly split between ‘capital,’ as you say, and studio practice.  But those two things are not, of course, mutually exclusive.  I feel strongly that there is intrinsic value in every proposal, as each different one forces you to consider the value of your project from different perspectives.  The big problem for me is that I haven’t found a way to do both at the same time: to the extent that they are separate activities, they are in conflict with each other.

[the list] The National Endowment for the Arts, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, UCLA Center for Community Partnership, Southwest Oral History Association, MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Music scores commissioned by Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.

UCIRA:  You were also recently invited to participate in United States Artists projects. Can you talk a bit about your experience with using this mechanism to fund your work in comparison to some of the others listed above?

Dan: I came to US Artists Project Site through my collaborator, Dan Hurlin, who is a US Artists fellow.  USA invited Dan to participate in the site, and he chose to raise funds for Who’s Hungry.  The system was (is?) still in its beta phase, and was not particularly user-friendly.  It took a long time to figure out how to set it up and operate it.  Dan and I chose to raise a small amount ($3,000). Somewhere along the way, we both were given the impression that this is what was expected of us.  Now, of course, I wish we had set a higher goal, as the $3,000 was easily reached.

Interestingly, my participation in the site attracted a lot of attention, way out of proportion to the amount we raised.  It seemed to be very well publicized; USA made excellent use of social media networking in this regard.

One really good thing about this site and others like it is that it is as much about developing and maintaining relationships around the work as it is about fundraising.  The maintenance part of that equation takes a good deal of work, ongoing, and it’s easy (in my case, for instance) to start out keeping those connections warm and then over the subsequent weeks and months allowing them to cool.

In a way, these kinds of sites are a logical extension of the ‘personal appeal’ letter that many artists send out in November/December of most years.  I think it’s a great way of asking yourself what the value of your work is to the communities it serves.  I also think that donor fatigue is no longer the exclusive province of the rich.  As Kickstarter-type sites have proliferated, they have democratized the field, so that anyone can easily and legitimately ask for funding at any time.  And anyone can be asked – and more and more often are.

UCIRA: After looking over the campaigns launched on various microfunding sites, it seems like artists are asked to present (even sell) their work very differently than they would to secure other sorts of funding. Do you agree? How do you feel about asking for money in this way? 

Dan: I don’t think so.  Like I say, it’s an extension of an existing practice that artists have been doing for a long time.  Personally, I tend to be very circumspect when it comes to this kind of direct fundraising.  I want to communicate to individual donors that I only ask when I feel it’s very important, and when their contribution will mean the most.  So, I feel perfectly fine about asking for support, because I will only do so when I truly believe the project deserves it – and can articulate why it does.

Jeff: My work is in a space between technology and art that a lot of traditional grant institutions usually don’t respond very well to.  I’ve only applied for a few traditional art grants in my lifetime, so I’m not sure I’m an expert, but I *always* feel like I am selling myself. I actually think it’s worse in traditional arts grants because you have to conform to the taste of a particular panel of judges. For instance, Rhizome and Turbulence are very different than NYFA and NYSCA, which means that you have to frame the same work differently. At least on the Internet you can be pretty sure that your work is going to appeal to someone out there. Although I toned down the nerdiness a bit in my Kickstarter campaign, I was more or less myself and just described the project as I would to a friend. It’s just a matter of finding the right community.

UCIRA:  Another characteristic of these kinds of campaigns is an attempt, at least, at relationship-building with donors who give at higher levels through the promise of continued communication about the project, or some kind of promotional schwag, from totebags to signed editions. What was your experience with this element of the process ? Did it (as some say it is supposed to do) build a better ‘fan base’, audience or community for your project?

Dan: It was definitely fun to imagine what might be a ‘reward’ for funders at different levels.  In the end, not so fun to follow through!  But people responded to the premiums.  Again, I think there is intrinsic value in providing swag for people.  It’s another way to brand yourself, and I don’t mean that cynically…. I am [also] still playing catch-up on this!  I’m not proud of this.  I’m interested to know if other artists find themselves in the same boat.  It may be a generational thing, in part, as well.  I’m still a neophyte when it comes to social media networking, and I find it difficult to be consistent.

Jeff:  I didn’t much care for this element of Kickstarter.  I am a very slow worker, and I didn’t want to feel like the donors were waiting by their computers for status updates.  And as I mentioned above, the prizes nearly broke the bank.  It was [also] a bad fit for me because I wasn’t making anything physical. I had to go out of my way to get t-shirts and USB drives printed and all that.  It did build a kind of fan base, though.  I actually ended up getting a completely separate grant from someone at the UN who found out about the project through Kickstarter for twice as much as my original campaign.

UCIRA:  I think that the situation of the artist working in the Academy is quite different from those who make their living through the market. How does the academic focus on research and practice fit with the hybrid nature of mechanisms like USA projects or Kickstarter? Is there a qualitative difference in finding one’s funding in this way as opposed to being funded through a non-profit or with government support?   

Dan:  I don’t find a huge qualitative difference in these different funding mechanisms.  Frankly, I try to keep my work in the university and my work in the non-profit sector separate as much as possible.  In general, I don’t feel it enhances my image as an independent artist to be associated with a university.  If anything, university funding is often the most difficult to deal with, as it is generally more restricted than foundation or government grants, and it is extremely difficult to pay out expenses through our department.

UCIRA:  One argument that has been made about this kind of group arts funding is that what will emerge at the end is a watered-down version of culture – that with ‘the masses’ deciding who gets funding and who doesn’t, more experimental and risk-taking work will go undone. Thoughts?  

Thuy: That argument is understandable and one that was considered very seriously during the research and development phase of USA Projects. In creating a micro-philanthropy platform, it was critical for us that caliber of artistic quality remained consistently high while being accessible to people everywhere. We believe that the vetting process ensures this level of quality and excellence. It takes the guesswork out of crowdfunding.

This platform allows artists the flexibility to do experimental and risky-taking work because they are not using traditional fundraising sources. New York filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris raised $11,500 to complete his documentary connecting the Black civil rights movement with the gay and lesbian marriage equality movement. Los Angeles furniture designer Tanya Aguiñiga raised more than $8,000 to launch Artists Helping Artisans, a collaboration with artisans in Chiapas, Mexico, whose craft traditions are at risk. Jim Woodring, a pen and ink cartoonist, manufactured a giant seven-foot-long steel dip pen and penholder. Jim mastered the mechanics of operating the pen—which weighs 30 pounds—at public demonstrations in Seattle.

Online fundraising also leverages the immediacy of the Internet. Zoe Strauss, a photographer in Philadelphia, raised over $5,000 for On the Beach, a photo series documenting the people and places affected by the Gulf Oil Spill. Zoe raised the money in just 4 days! Had she proposed funding for this project from an organization, it would have most likely taken much longer.

With USA Projects, artists can also raise money for different stages of a project. This provides valuable assistance at the naissance period. Success is more than just getting funding–it also means seeing the development of fresh ideas. Mickael Broth, a visual artist and writer, is currently seeking funding for the development phase of a print memoir about his time incarcerated for graffiti vandalism. It’s a story of art, graffiti, the legal system, and about taking risks in the pursuit of making art.

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice is the first feature-length fiction film made in Alaska by an Iñupiaq writer/director with an entirely Inuit cast. Andrew successfully raised funds to help get the film to the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered this year. He was able to bring the actors down from Alaska, pay for food and lodging, and hire a publicist. Additionally, the Rasmuson Foundation generously matched the funds he raised.

Dan:  I don’t think that this kind of funding replaces, in theory or practice, the need for traditional funding in the arts.  And it doesn’t seem to me that the stakes are high enough to effect culture with a capital ‘C’.  I think the benefits of engagement outweigh the possible risks. However, I feel much more ambivalent about things like the A.W.A.R.D. show, in which live audiences decide who among a small group of artist who perform that evening get $10,000 of somebody else’s money.  That kind of competition sets up winners and losers and does not, I think, build community.

Jeff:  I think this is a kind of zero-sum view.  There was this idea that was brought up on Facebook that institutions (I like to imagine personified as a moustachioed fat guy in a top hat) would look at Kickstarter and feel better about cutting his contributions to the arts, but this is a made-up narrative. I haven’t come across any proof that crowdfunding sites are contributing in any way to the decrease of institutional grant giving.  And even if they were, it completely ignores the intention of the people contributing to crowdsourcing sites.  Rather than wasting energy blaming well-meaning people for contributing money to art projects that inspire them, wouldn’t it be better to think about how individuals and institutions can work together to find some model that allows both kinds of giving?

I’d also take issue with the fact that “the masses” never support experimental and risky ideas, or that grant-giving institutions always do.  At the risk of just sounding like a naive/bitter loser, I’ve had projects turned down by art institutions and been personally informed that it was for insurance reasons (a ParkingDay idea involving launching people into the air), because it wasn’t appropriate for children (Laborers of Love – a crowdsourced porn creation site).  I’ve had others that I think are strong ideas, but that I haven’t bothered to submit because they are legally dubious (DeleteCity – saves deleted YouTube videos), or it would be offensive to donors/board members (Praying@Home/GodBlock – critical of religion).  Kickstarter wouldn’t necessarily be constrained by these issues.

UCIRA:  I am also wondering what the proliferation of this kind of funding model might mean when we think about issues of sustainability. At UCIRA, we modeled our grants partially on what Creative Capital has tried to do – thinking through what our particular set of artists might need in order to support the life of their projects. We were tired of just writing checks and sending people on their way. Not that I think we have come up with an answer, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on question of arts funding and sustainability.  

Thuy: Unfortunately, government arts funding will always have its limitations with budget deficits. At United States Artists, a robust organization is envisioned with a 100+ year horizon, providing artists’ significant resources to do their work.  To meet this goal, USA hopes to permanently endow the USA Fellows program with $50 million. To date, $9 million has been raised toward the goal.

Dan:  I think that what UCIRA and Creative Capital are up to addresses the issue of sustainability much more than social media micro-funding.  I see the latter as one very small – and very positive -piece of the puzzle, but not one that can or should be relied on in an ongoing way.  I think that the model of combining non-monetary support with funding does a much better job.

 

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 3)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

********

PART III

UCIRA:  What kids of shifts might we see in terms of the kinds of research, work, projects supported in this emerging funding climate? i.e. do you see a demonstrable difference in the kind of support offered through governmental versus private avenues?

Steve:  You’re asking about what kinds of projects will get supported and if that will change, but I am going to expand your question to both projects and the processes involved at the artist level and beyond.

First, I need to acknowledge the many advantages of crowdfunding because they are significant. For someone with a great idea and little track record crowdfunding can be incredible. I remember how hard it was for me in 2000, without even a complete slide sheet, trying to prove to a foundation that I could pull off an ambitious project. When an organization is fronting $12,000 dollars, they want to make sure it won’t be wasted. As a newcomer, this barrier can be discouraging. Crowdfunding gives more people access because arguably all you need is a good idea and the ability to communicate it well.

For me, I’ve been claiming ‘artist’ on my taxes since 2000. That’s 11 years of hustling, from being a newcomer, bending over backwards proving myself, and advancing to where I turn down opportunities I would have fought for in years prior. Having been through a variety of positions and situations, I like that I can sidestep the demands of the bureaucracy (the California Arts Council application process was the most elaborate I’ve ever navigated) and instead make a video, go straight to my base, and raise the money more quickly. That’s good.

Part of your question touches on a idea that ‘appealing to the masses’ for funding would mean that projects chasing the lowest common denominator will be successful, but I don’t believe art will follow the path of reality television. People are very smart, are able to learn, and have a variety of interests. Crowdfunding allows niche creators to find the niche audiences who love them.

I believe that what is funded depends much more on how well the artist can communicate why they are passionate about the project and why people should care. Ironically, this very thing is what I’m convinced destroyed the NEA. The NEA wasn’t able to communicate the value of funding artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano. These were artists who made groundbreaking work, but had no place in the market. They deserved to be supported by the government because the market never supports such challenging, but valuable work. (See my video on why public funds should be used to support artwork that may be considered offensive:

( http://visitsteve.com/made/video-for-power-taboo-and-the-artist/)

Setting aside my skepticism I read an amazing interview were Serrano explained ‘Piss Christ’ in his own words. I was completely won over. I went from a skeptic to now advocating for Serrano when he comes up in conversations. This direct communication from the artist that turns the viewer into a supporter is exactly what happens in a Kickstarter video! The same communication with the audience doesn’t happen when the artist is isolated in their studio and issued a check. The viewer isn’t as likely to become an advocate.

So I’m not concerned about the quality or types of projects supported with this funding model. I think this is where public funding could learn a lot when if we could plan a successful hybrid.

However, focusing on the funding of projects is a mistake.

A friend argued that this direct funding meant that artists receive a higher percentage of the resources. They argued the bureaucracy of arts organizations is inefficient, stating only [fill in some horrifying percentage] reaches the actual artists. I won’t argue that any given arts organization couldn’t be more efficient. It probably could, but that argument is a red herring. Let me explain.

As artists, our job is to make art. If you make your living as one, you know being an artist is less hanging out at cafés and ruminating on the way the light lands on your danish and much more similar to managing the day to day operations of a one person small business. You are responsible for everything. Arts organizations and their ‘bureaucracy,’ when at their best, take some of these burdens away so artists can make art. I might need to get to a different location to focus on a new important project. A residency program, with all its overhead, helps do that. If I want to have an exhibition, I’ll need to work with a gallery, with all its overhead. The non-profit galleries and residency programs that receive NEA funds help artists accomplish things we couldn’t do on our own. In fact, some take on securing funding for our projects so we don’t have to – lets not forget fundraising is a lot of work and most of us would rather be in the studio.

Public funding doesn’t only mean supporting artists and projects financially, but supporting an arts infrastructure that is needed and wanted, but can’t exist in a strictly capitalist system.

If we move further towards privatized funding and crowdfunding, what happens to the infrastructure? I’ll gladly throw in a few dollars for an exciting project through crowdfunding, but what about a roof repair?

Art requires public funding because art simply doesn’t exist exclusively in the marketplace. Republican leaders and libertarian ideologues see things that don’t thrive under capitalism as weak, unnecessary, or inherently unpopular. We know this isn’t true, they’re simply using the wrong lens to look at the problem.

So why accept a perspective we know is false?

It’s time to create a vision, taking the best from every model, and work toward our ideals. Caring about culture means effectively communicating it’s value. It means engaging power by working to tax the wealthy and corporations at pre-Reagan rates and working to cut defense spending. It means advocating for, increasing, and securing public funding for the arts and our arts infrastructure now and for the future. It means instead of settling for short-term solutions, pushing to make our dreams reality.

 

CONTINUE READING: CLICK FOR PART 4

 

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 2)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their persepctives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

PART II:

UCIRA: Steve, I contacted you about this topic after you made the observation that crowdfunding essentially equates to artists support for right wing tax cuts. Can you expand on this idea a bit?

Steve: In George H. W. Bush’s 1989 presidential campaign he began using the phrase ‘the thousand points of light.’ In his inauguration speech he explained the thousand points of light are ‘all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. [?] The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.’

Well that sounds good. It means community and supporting each other, I am for that. But I’d argue George H. W. Bush didn’t mean it exactly like I do. When George H.W. Bush talked about a thousand points of light, it led directly into talk about ‘balancing’ the federal budget – or, to cut to the chase, continuing the Reagan administration’s policy of smaller government. The idea being: when we cut government spending, everything will be just fine because all those wonderful community organizations and charitable people, the thousand points of light, will sweep in. Government programs aren’t needed because volunteers will do the work.

This brings me to my fear: how is what the right wing dreamed of years ago different than what we celebrate as crowd-funding today? The NEA hasn’t funded individual artists since the early 1990s and state art budgets are getting cut in record numbers to record lows. Kansas recently cut its arts funding entirely. On the other hand, Kickstarter has moved $60,000,000 for over 10,000 projects since it’s launch just a few years ago.

As someone who’s personally created various crowd-funding strategies and campaigns, I know from experience this support comes primarily from our own networks. While we individually route our money (perhaps losing some to Amazon.com along the way) to help support each other, public funding could use one dollar per taxpayer to each year quintuple the amount Kickstarter has distributed since it began. Even more if we taxed corporations at the rate we did a few decades ago. Don’t we all agree this form of ‘crowd-sourcing’ is less of a burden on our already strained communities and a better use of our state funds?

We’re artists. We’re independent, creative, and resourceful. When we see a problem, we find ways to solve it. But instead of using our skills to engage power and secure public funding of the arts for now and the future, we’ve accepted the right-wing paradigm and started working within it.

 

And we’ve done a great job. Crowdfunding is remarkable in solving short term problems: artists need to get paid, our culture needs (and clearly wants) these projects to exist, we want to participate in a community. But how are we solving our long term problems – our government should truly be a representation, a reflection of us as a people and support culture instead of conflict, artists instead of bankers – when looking at the much bigger picture, is crowdfunding exacerbating those long-term problems and enabling us to move government further from our ideals?

As crowdfunding solves the short term problem so well, does it pacify our outrage at the defunding of the arts and culture? After all, my project still got funded, so what does it matter where the money came from?? Does it stall our ability to envision improvements to public funding? Looking at the WPA or the NEA, these models had benefits and flaws. Instead of looking at the advantages of crowdfunding and other innovations to improve current and past models of public funding, I think most people may, more or less, accept the extreme right position that these past efforts are only failures to be abandoned.

 

UCIRA: It does of course seem interesting that so many crowdfunding platforms for the arts have come online in the last two years just as arguments over government support for the arts have again heated up (i.e. recent threats to/cuts from the NEA budget, as well as total elimination of funding for the Kansas arts commission, for instance). Does the emergence of new mechanisms for private support for the arts necessarily have to be linked to this re-emergent neoliberal dialogue or can we think about it differently? 

Steve: Well of course, you could argue both ways.

If one said ‘crowd-funding shouldn’t be paralleled with public funding, it democratizes philanthropy and makes it accessible to all instead of isolated to the ultra wealthy’ they’d be partially right. It does do that. There are many lenses to view crowd-funding:

• As a streamlined and democratic update to private philanthropy and foundations

• Pre-sales of market goods (i.e. a DVD of my band, a limited edition print of my photography) that allows the creator to gauge the market before beginning a project

• An innovation that better connects audiences to the process throughout a project’s life

If the arts were better funded publicly (and I mean qualitatively and quantitatively) we wouldn’t see private crowd funding emerge with such popularity. If the innovation that’s happening with even the concept of websites like Indie-go-go, Kickstarter, Eventful, and Artists Share happened in public art commissions, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are. There is definitely a link.

More than this, I’ve heard arts administrators say candidly ‘we lost funding for that program, so instead we’re going to do a crowdfunding thing.’ When the NEA stopped funding individual artists the Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital stepped in to give individual artists grants at the national level. More recently, after cutting the Kansas state arts budget to zero this year, to take its place the Governor established a private foundation to fund the arts. Conscious and not, there is a direct connection between the neoliberal agenda and the privatization of arts funding.

Certainly the core of crowdfunding is not new. Artists are resourceful by nature and we tend to support each other. Lots of people understand art’s tangible and intangible value and are willing to chip in and support us in our efforts. I remember being a student in community college and unable to afford Super 8 film to make my final film project. I wrote to family and relatives and asked for help and their small contributions of $5 to $100 allowed me to make a film I am still proud of. 15 years later we funded the $18,000 New York Times Special Edition a similar way. It works, it always has, though it works more efficiently than just a couple years ago.

A healthy culture has opportunities for artists from a variety of sources; private support, foundations, the commercial art world, and public funding. None of these pieces are new, but the shift in balance is. The defunding of arts programs at this level is new, and the shift from public to private funding is new. We’re moving out of balance.

For some perspective, imagine if we crowdfunded wars. ‘C’mon everyone, If we can hit 1.25 trillion dollars we can invade Iraq and Afghanistan!’ If you believe the government represents the people when spending trillions on nuclear weapons, the military, and international intelligence, but barely funding the arts, then great. For the rest of us, I can’t emphasize how important it is to remember: we don’t need to make these cuts to culture. Our country is overflowing with wealth and abundance, it’s just being withheld by the ultra-rich thanks to changes in our tax structure designed by the extreme right. (And paying for wars, of course.) When we accept the notion that ‘austerity’ is necessary, accept privatization as a solution, and abandon a long-term vision we play right into Grover Norquist’s bathtub fantasies.

Every organization working to solve the short term problem of lack of funding also has a duty to dedicate some energy to long-term thinking, innovation, and advocacy that will reinstate that funding.

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 3)


 

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