Interview: Furtherfield

  Karl England  
  London, UK 

  November 2016 

Furtherfield is an artist-run gallery, commons and online network that has been a leading forced in the field of technology, social change and art since 1996. With Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett at the helm, today Furtherfield's physical hub is in Finsbury Park in the form of two spaces, a gallery and a commons/lab in north London. Sluice__ caught up with Marc and Ruth to discuss how networks affect behaviours (amongst other things).

  Karl   One point of connection between Sluice__ and Furtherfield is an interest in the network as an informal decentralised infrastructure and how it can be utilised to promote a DIY art culture. Last year you staged an exhibition called ‘The Human Face of Cryptoeconomies’ which dealt with this area and how technologies including the Blockchain could impact creativity.
  Ruth   So Blockchain is like the new protocol for the Internet. You had the web, then you had ubiquitous computing, then mobile phones, then an emergent shift into the Internet of things, supposedly making our fridges and digitally networked consumer goods smarter. The Blockchain is enabling the marketisation, the monetisation of everything through these various networks, and because the network as a whole is now entwined into our physical lives it's a double-headed creature. On the one hand you have a lot of people that came from a kind of libertarian and capitalist tradition who are super excited because it gives us a way to route around the state and big banks, to do international trading and exchange, without the state involved, without taxes without regulation and those kind of things. There’s a lot of democracy led hype around it all and they're playing on that to suck us all in, which is very interesting.
On the other side, there is this kind of fascination with it all but it’s also frightening, because it concerns a plan to automate everything, and it's promising to automate out all of the difficult social interactions. So all the things we find tough, messy, and boring, all that stuff that produces a lot of friction is seen to be suddenly necessary to edit out of our lives. There’s a fantasy that by automating everything it will allow us to be able to live lives of leisure, but really when has technology ever done that for us?
Regarding how it effects art culture, critics of these corporate companies say that it’s essentially just adding art market values and its systems onto the blockchain. Rather than examining what this is catalysing in the world, or what it does to society or what it does to our social relations. It’s just reproducing the same mechanisms again.

  Karl   We work with a company called ascribe in the Sluice_screens copycopy prize. They ascribe copyright information to online artworks via the Blockchain. They recently partnered with Creative Commons – the copyleft platform. The whole copyright vs copyleft issue (whereby software or artistic work may be used, modified, and distributed freely on condition that anything derived from it is bound by the same conditions) is an important one for artists as producers of culture but also for how society will access culture in the future. Some would say utilising the Blockchain in this way actually enables an increasing fencing in of the Internet for corporate gain, that peer-to-peer networks and the decentralised web is crucial to a free Internet (and creativity) and that the Blockchain deployed as an identification tool is a harbinger of a more controlled Internet. How do you feel about these developments?
  Marc   My concern is more to do with who actually ends up gaining control of these tools and whether they work to serve the privileged over less supported artists and art orgs. When we did the exhibition ‘The Human Face of Cryptoeconomies’, it presented artworks that revealed how we might produce, exchange and value things differently in the age of the blockchain. Even though it was shown under the longer term project called ART/DATA/MONEY, art markets were a just a small part of the richness of what was presented. From our perspective, It’s about taking away power from those who rule our lives, and then redistributing that power to others. The point is: if your values are existing within power systems based on hierarchies then that is the way you're going to act - because you're in that vehicle that acts like a hierarchy, rather than stepping out of it and evaluating that relationship. Are these truly the values you want to embed into your technologies?

  Karl   Advocates of their position would assert that the blockchain simply enables retention of ownership, so the artist can then either sell or give the work away. I think they would say as a tool it's neutral, the users are the ones that weaponise it. As in: guns don't hurt people, people hurt people
  Ruth   What appeals to us are grassroots: communities, networks and decentralised groups and systems that allow us to find our own artistic voices on our terms, individually or collectively. We’re faced with mechanisms that exploit our data, redistribute it to other unknown parties, and we’re not in control of it. If you look at Facebook there’s one person at the top of that totalitarian state and he’s called Mark Zuckerberg. There has been a belief that new technologies are solutions, which is an illusion. This mythology has been so strong because so many tech-dominated groups have claimed the word ‘innovation’, is only about hi-tech. This is not true, ‘innovation’ is something a lot deeper, and is certainly not just about technology and markets.

  Karl   Despite this hierarchical aversion - as a tool social media does provide a genuine peer-to-peer means of communication though doesn't it? Sluice__ was borne via connections made through twitter, because suddenly connections were not hierarchical, they’re much more meritocratic in that if you’re interesting you can make connections regardless of location or status.
  Marc   We use social networks all of the time. However, it can distract us from investing knowledge and time back into our own communities. If this happens, before we know it – our existence is then owned and or controlled by a private company.

  Karl   Led by platforms like Instagram and snapchat social media is becoming ever more enclosed. Propriatorial walls are being raised via the App-lification of the web. As a DIY initiative I feel it's important to create and control our verious platforms, online and off. But a lot of artists I meet will say: why make your own website? people don't make their own website these days, why develop a bespoke site when you can livestream your exhibition? Just get a tumblr, or a facebook page, make the corporate platforms work for you! Expdiancy is your friend.
  Marc   We come from a culture where collaboratively building things with others is part of a progressive experience, and it helps you connect with others beyond the interface. That’s why we have always said we are engaged in art, technology and social change.
  Ruth   The platform is made by the people who use it. Back in 2006 we did a project called diwo which was a mail-art project, and it explored exactly these issues: the relationship between mail-art - which was all about breaking down the gate-keeping into the gallery system, that was its main function - but also with focus on the transmission and reception of the art and that it happened between people rather than being lodged in an object. So when we did the “do it with others” exhibition, which was moving things on from the diy punk thing, it was about moving that into the network led space. it was a remix, re-appropriation, about art happening between people in the social space. it was also - I love mail art - because it was so bolshy, and it's saying we don’t care , that isn’t what it's for, it isn’t about the institution giving us their stamp of approval.

  Karl   Furtherfield has a physical gallery space, do you maintain that because it in some ways validates the work, the institution of the gallery validates the work? Why do you think its important to have a physical space at all?
  Marc   There are over a hundred languages spoken within a mile of here and they all come to the space. When we had a drones exhibition a few years ago we had workshops which were about mapping where components of drones come from so people could know what collaborations are formed around drone technology, because certain parts of actual combat drones are illegal in certain countries - they're classed as a weapon - but if you take a part of it and all the parts are built in different countries, you can then assemble it and sell it legally. so you’ve got iran making one component, america, germany, england: they’re all collaborating in building drones that are killing people in afghanistan.
  Ruth   This workshop was a really good example of the kind of events we like to do alongside our exhibitions because it gave people a sense of the kind of networked culture we're living in, of how power is shifting and moving and how easy it is for people to take advantage - aided by high speed networks.
  Marc   Because now people are going through a stage of acceleration where they can't comprehend the dominance of technology over their own lives. if you open that door to everyday people - let alone artists - the conversation is interesting, it's beyond the art, but it's part of the art.. One of the biggest problems, culturally and politically, is that the conversation is too abstract, it is too remote, there’s no ownership: by being physical we can allow people to take ownership of the conversation, they return - there’s a legacy, and out of all that you build values. For instance they might not like one show because its too techy, but they might like a perma-cultural ten week workshop. We don't work in absolutes, we're a living assemblage where you’ve got people on various platforms, reviewing art and activism and technology, you've got a physical space here at furtherfield commons, which encompasses workshops and you’ve got the gallery space which the art world recognises because they recognise the word gallery or the word art. but actually it is an infiltration - we're trying to expand what art is rather than close it down. s

  This interview features in the Autumn 2016 edition of the Sluice_magazine.