I first met Ruth Catlow in early 2011 when I started my ethnographic fieldwork at the former Furtherfield Gallery in Manor House, London. I was looking at creativity in emergent networked communities and Furtherfield was the perfect place to start my research. Since then, I have been meeting and collaborating with Ruth in various occasions. I have been fascinated by Ruth’s hard work, ongoing enthusiasm and endless creativity to keep Furtherfield a vibrant community and a space of artistic excellence and innovation. P2P learning practices, DIWO and the commons are all part of Furtherfield’s exemplary work as an arts organization, community and platform.
Q: Dear Ruth, tell us something about your general background and what Furtherfield is about?
A: In the mid-90s, the web changed forever what it meant to be an artist. In London, the Brit Art scene – agencies, galleries and media for circulating and promoting art – had started to dominate the relationship between the viewer/audience and art experience in a way that restricted what it was possible for art to do – and who could access it. The art market framed the work.
In 1996, I started working with Marc Garrett, an artist with a background in street art, bulletin boards and pirate radio in Bristol. Backspace, an early London cybercafe, provided the inspiration for loosely organised, free artistic experimentation. It’s hard to imagine now, in the age of Web 2.0 (where the major web platforms are provided to offer a smooth exchange, in quiet service of commercial interests) the thrill of creating new platforms for art in the early days of the web. We engaged different kinds of people according to a specific artistic intent. Artists consciously crafted particular social relations with their platforms or artwares.  These things connected with cultures of openness and freedom in the world of software and engineering, and undermined the idea of the individual genius artist, allowing us to reconnect with contemporary social and political contexts. 
In 1997, New York artist duo MTTA famously made ‘A Simple Net Art Diagram’, in which a lightning bolt strikes in the space between two computers with the label ‘The Art Happens Here’. The computers stood in for people. The art happens between people – the value of the work lies in the mutual subjectivity of the art experience. The “Intermedia” approaches of Fluxus artists in the 70s were amplified in art that took digital and social networks as its medium and context. It connected people across different localities. Its users made software (instructions, protocols and tools), files and network content available for circulation and remix as artistic materials in a whole new way. They built platforms and systems for sharing and exchanging these on their own terms.
This provided the background for development, and now Furtherfield is an international online community, gallery and lab space for arts, technology and social change. Our mission now is to work with extraordinary artists, techies and activists – locally, nationally and internationally – to develop experimental spaces, platforms and programmes for creative collaboration and peer production of emancipated, thriving communities.
This video, created by Orlagh Woods by Artquest gives a pretty full description of what we are doing at the moment and why.
Q: Could you tell us what the Furtherfield Commons is? When did it start? What kind of projects does it involve? How do you link Furtherfield Commons with the nearby local communities?
A: Furtherfield Commons opened last year in Finsbury Park, North London as a community lab space, for people to learn more about digital culture; to learn how to work with new technologies on their own terms; to better understand the devices in their hands, on their clothes, in their lines of sight etc; to demystify and open up the black box of technology. Furtherfield Gallery has been based in the heart of the park since 2012 (before this Furtherfield hosted 3-5 exhibitions since 2004 in a warehouse gallery called HTTP). These venues in a metropolitan public space enable us to engage a hyper-diverse public with the work of artists from an international community.
Digital culture is changing society: the way we relate to each other, how power flows, decisions are made, and politics is done, shaping environmental stresses. Artists help us to feel and evaluate these societal shifts. By presenting the work of artists who focus on these effects, and then talking with audiences and participants, we learn what matters to people. Our visitors are often surprised and glad to be addressed in this way by artists.
With Furtherfield Commons, we also want to experiment with how a commons might work for an arts- and technology-led organisation. Discussions of the commons often (unhelpfully) centre around how to manage and share scarce resources – materials, knowledge, praxis – and get stuck on questions of ownership, fairness, etc. For us, it is at least as important to imagine, devise, maintain and steward together places, infrastructures, systems and communities; for a good life, for more diverse people, and all living things.
While our consumer culture invites us to constantly outsource responsibility for these activities and knowledges, we hope that the events and programmes we host at Furtherfield Commons, in partnership with a network of thoughtful and critical individuals and organsations, will help more people to imagine that a good life is the business of us all.
We link with nearby local communities by connecting with a range of local enthusiasms, interests and needs. Working in partnership with educational and criticial technology groups like Fossbox and Codasign, we are able to offer accessible activities for young people and those not normally actively involved with technology. In collaboration with artist and game theorist Dr. Mary Flanagan, we have developed Play Your Place to bring people together to co-create shared visions of their locality through drawing and play. Last year, we hosted a series of Class Wargames events inspired by the Situationist Guy Debord’s Game of War. People gathered to play board games based on historic battles, in order to learn about and develop revolutionary strategies and tactics from history.
We are also developing partnerships with local arts organisations like All Change Arts, who have long had their roots in the local area, developing extraordinary work with those who might otherwise be excluded from the arts. Last year, before Furtherfield Commons opened, we worked with Bright Sparks, an electrical recycling and community design enterprise on a co-created, network performance about the impact of e-waste, as part of Helen Varley Jamieson’s We Have A Situation, with 5 European organisations looking at local issues with a global impact. We plan to build on these activities this year with the upcoming Sex and Security workshops with Fossbox. The Museum of Contemporary Commodities by artist Paula Crutchlow (Blind Ditch) and cultural geographer Dr Ian Cook (of Followthethings.com) looks at trade justice, and how data uses shape our physical spaces and social relations, especially in retail.
We are also planning Summer Saturday club for 600 young people and their guardians over the next two years. We will work with partners to devise and share new ways to learn about the principles of programming through artistic concepts and approaches drawing on the ethos of the 70s art school. As the result of a recent Digital Futures: Money No Object collaboration with The White Building and the V&A, we hope to soon host a series of workshops to support new thinking on the relationship between art, value and money by Brett Scott, author of the The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance, Hacking the Future of Money. We are always interested in new proposals for uses for the space.
Q: Could you please tell us a bit more about your concept DIWO (Do-It-With-Others)? How relevant is it to the ‘commons’ and the ‘peer-to-peer’ values?
A: We coined the term DIWO – Do It With Others in 2006 to extend the DIY (Do It Yourself) ethos of early net art. This was inspired by punk, in which you used the instruments and bare-bones skills you could muster, to bash out culture on your own terms. DIWO consciously adopted a collaborative approach, using the web as an experimental artistic medium and distribution system to connect with diverse people in unusual ways, and to foment grassroots creativity and solidarity.
Applying the principles of earlier Mail Art projects designed to sidestep artworld gatekeeping and hierarchy, we instigated two e-mail art projects. We proposed that “peers connect, communicate and collaborate, creating controversies, structures and a shared grassroots culture, through both digital online networks and physical environments.”
Participants worked across time zones and geographic and cultural distances with digital images, audio, text, code and software. They created streams of art-data, art-surveillance, instructions and proposals in relay, producing multiple threads and mash-ups. Co-curated using VOIP and webcams the exhibition at HTTP Gallery displayed all contributions in a projected email inbox, alongside an installation of prints of every image, and a running copy of every video and audio file submitted. Every submission was considered an artwork – or part of a larger, collective artwork – for the DIWO project.
From these early events a set of DIWO principles have emerged. It’s DIWO if it:-
- Uses the metaphors, tools, cultures and processes of digital & physical networks.
- Is led by experimental artistic processes rather than utilitarian or theoretical concerns.
- Disrupts traditional hierarchies and concepts of ownership, working with decentralized peer 2 peer practices.
- Involves more and more diverse people (as unwitting and active collaborators), ideas and social ecologies.
- Generates unruly and provocative relationships between symbolic meanings and material effects.
- Co-creates the conditions for a more emancipated art context.
In recent years there have been DIWO festivals in Finland and Denmark, and other individuals and groups are making it there own. The DIWO resource gives more information and links to projects and essays
Q: What is the future vision of Furtherfield? What’s next for the long term?
A: We have had the good fortune to grow up alongside an international network of individuals and organisations of critical practicioners, thinkers and doers. Our next 3 year programme (of exhibitions, workshops, debates) sets out to properly engage with the social, environmental, financial challenges of our times. We will be building on existing relationships and partnerships as well as actively seeking partners to develop emancipatory cultural infrastructures and projects viable and effective within the Neoliberal context.
Our vision is that through imaginative and critical engagement with practices in art and technology, more and more diverse people strengthen the expressive and democratic potential of our shared techno-social landscape, on their own terms.
Which brings us to this week’s launch of The NetArtizens Project
A month of artistic collaboration, exhibition & discussion with 3 flavours of online participation. This runs from March 2 – April 2, 2015 and is a Furtherfield project created in collaobraion with Nick Briz & Joseph Yølk Chiocchi as part of the Art of Networked Practice | Online Symposium
We invite all artists, scholars, educators, and citizens of the Net to explore, express, and debate the role of the network in our individual and collective practices. Artists are also invited to submit work to the NetArtizens Open Online Exhibition, an evolving showcase of works submitted between March 2 – April 2, 2015. All project activity, questions and issues will be incorporated into the culminating virtual roundtable global exchange.
Visit The Net Artizens Project portal and get involved.
- ↑ For instance in 2003 we created with Neil Jenkins, VisitorsStudio an online place for real-time, multi-user mixing, collaborative creation, many to many dialogue and networked performance and play. This was a social, multilayered space that provided a site for projects such as Dissention Convention in which a collaborative polemic could be simultaneously created, viewed and remixed in different locations around the world.
- ↑ In 2011 Furtherfield produced Collaboration and Freedom – The World of Open Source Art– a collection of artworks, texts and resources about freedom and openness in the arts, in the age of the Internet. Freedom to collaborate – to use, modify and redistribute ideas, artworks, experiences, media and tools. Openness to the ideas and contributions of others, and new ways of organising and making decisions together. This was commissioned by Arts Council England and is mirrored at the Foundation for P2P Alternatives.
- ↑ Furtherfield.org blog, Do It With Others (DIWO): E-Mail-Art at NetBehaviour
Ruth Catlow’s Bio:
Ruth Catlow is an artist, curator, and co-founder, co-director of Furtherfield, a community and network for arts, technology and social change since 1997. Furtherfield’s public gallery and lab venues in London, provide a physical interface for exhibitions, events and workshops. An online hub provides a forum for exchange, collaboration and critical review for international artists, technologists and activists to strengthen the expressive and democratic potential of shared techno-social landscape.