Ruth Catlow is an artist, curator, and researcher who brings 20 years of experience from the intersection of arts and technology to emerging practices in art, decentralized technologies, and the blockchain. She is co-founder and co-director of Furtherfield, a not-for-profit international community hub that collaborates with its community to disrupt and democratize art and technology through deep exploration, open tools, and free thinking. Read more.
The question of who gets to shape and build the expressive and communicative utilities of the 21st century is becoming an increasingly urgent one. A recent report on digital attitudes showed that while 50 percent of people in the UK say that the Internet has a positive impact on their lives, only 12 percent believe it has a positive impact on society. Much has been made of the democratizing effect of social media platforms; meanwhile, we have less influence over the important decisions that most affect our lives, our localities, and the ways in which our societies are organized. The owners of digital platforms like Facebook and Uber answer to shareholders in private rather than to citizens in public—which is why it’s unsurprising when they manipulate, monetize, and exploit users’ interactions, attitudes, and behaviors for their own commercial and political interests.
Understanding art as both a mirror and a hammer, artists have worked together across ethics, technics, and aesthetics to form movements through history—Dada, Fluxus, Situationism—that innovate new forms of organization, practice, and exchange. Artists have been seizing control of the tools and intervening in the logic of media monopolies and “defense” information infrastructures for more than 50 years. Through the telephone and postal systems, in teletext, radio, TV, and bulletin boards, in the text-based, multi-user worlds of MUDs and MOOs, on the World Wide Web, and now with blockchains, artists have always used and misused decentralized technologies as expressive and tactical media for uncensored pseudonymous play and disruption.
In 1981, Paper Tiger TV distributed short critiques of mainstream media programming created by groups of artists, activists, and academics. Supporters played back their videotapes in public-access cable stations across the US. In 1991, the VNS Matrix cyberfeminist media art collective “crawled out of the cyberswamp” and spewed forth a manifesto, obscene and blasphemous to patriarchal techno-hegemony, “via an aesthetics of slime initially generated as porn by women for women.” These works are inspirational for their refusal of both the primacy of polite art world canons and the containment by systems of centralized disciplinary control.
In the mid-aughts, 90 people participated through an open call for an exhibition called Do It With Others: E-mail Art at Furtherfield, a gallery in London I run along with Marc Garrett. The show has since become core to the ethos of Furtherfield, and the term DIWO (a progression from the Punk spirit of DIY) now illustrates our understanding of the web as a social object that makes the concept of the artist as individual genius an old and unuseful idea. Instead, we recognize the web as a resilient, uncensorable, and scalable network of nodes made up of many different categories of things, and acknowledge that culture is produced collaboratively between people, places, tools, and technical concepts, creatures and environments.
Matt Liston, creator of the blockchain religion and artwork 0xΩ, along with Avery Singer, observes of blockchain culture, “It is alive with cybernetic feedback loops between belief and value.” This was ever true with both the World Wide Web and art worlds. Emerging decentralized technologies like Blockchain and Web 3.0 are solidifying alternative economies and new infrastructures for coordination. Artists are doing the work of reminding us of the importance of optimizing for diverse human interests as they wrangle meaning from the unruly cybernetic feedback loops of our accelerating global network societies. They insist instead on a polyphony of meaning and expression, the legitimacy of which will be constituted through fierce neverending psychic and social struggle.
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