How to remix your cover

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Words. Professor Ross Harley

The most radical proponents of video art were always concerned with establishing alternative networks of communication based on the principle of “open circuits” and “participation TV”. An understanding of this historical context is helpful in highlighting the potential to be found in today’s web-based networks that privilege sharing, participation and openness.

There are many challenges to free and open distribution of video art. Creators are struggling to come to terms with digital networks and technologies (from web-based platforms to peer-to-peer networks). There are real concerns about assignation of rights and control of distribution in a digital world. And what does it mean for artists to make their work freely available via the web?

I want to suggest that solutions to these challenges can be found in FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) principles, and that these approaches will diversify the video culture in new and unexpected ways. The radical challenges to television, art and culture made by video artists in the 1960s and 1970s find their echo today in the principles of FLOSS, Creative Commons, Open Content and other emerging principles of participatory culture.

When artists first took to making video in the 1960s, its radical form and function was often predicated on the ease of access to the means of production. For a couple of thousand dollars anybody could buy a portapak and start making videos. The same is true today, as the barriers to entry-level video equipment tumble. But making work is only ever one small part of the production-distribution-exhibition circuit.

While the dissemination of video art has certainly been growing and transforming over the past thirty years, distribution has remained the Achilles heel of all video art movements. As interest in the past and present of video art increases, it remains almost as difficult to access and view these works today as it was in the 1970s.

What would happen if we could dynamically bring together our geographically distant and fragmentary histories of video art using the participatory and user-centric technologies of the peer-to-peer web? What would it mean to establish a distributed, networked archive of video art - one that is based precisely on the viral principles of peer-to-peer sharing, the democratic protocols of open archives and the powerful technics of open source codecs?

Perhaps a FLOSS view of the internet can offer new possibilities for stitching these immaterialities together into new relations in a mashable, hyperlinked, electronic universe. Under such conditions, it is possible to create a multi-way read-write web of connections, links, videos, writing, biographical data, images, comments, debate and other important documents (and not a unified giant that takes ownership and control).

Unlike physical archives that must house objects and place them in a single location, digital archives don’t need physical space. They need server space. They chew bandwidth. Driven by metadata that allows an enormous amount of flexibility for classifying, sorting and browsing, these digital objects (ie video) can exist in many places (by way of hyperlinks) and in many categories and subcategories at once (by way of tags and folksonomies). Videotapes and DVDs, along with index cards and library stacks, just can’t do that.

Sites such as UbuWeb provide an example of what is possible. UbuWeb hosts an ever-expanding assortment of digital files of hard-to-see material by key avant-garde film and video makers. UbuWeb insists that the digital videos on the site are presented for educational and non-commercial use only and that copyright of artists is respected. Though this may not be altogether entirely legal it’s hard to argue against the fact that:

“most of us don’t live anywhere near theatres that show this kind of fare … Thankfully, there is the internet which allows you to get a whiff of these films regardless of your geographical location. We realize that the films we are presenting are of poor quality. It’s not a bad thing; in fact, the best thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make you want to make a trip to [a film archive] …. Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these works out into the world … Please support these filmmakers and their distributors by purchasing their films. Please support the presenters of these works by going to see them in theatres whenever you can.”

While not everyone is in agreement with this free-wheeling approach to copyright, there is something about the open and expansive spirit of projects like this one that makes it hard to deny the value of ad-hoc online video archives such as this. As Lawrence Lessig would have it, the more you share something, the more valuable it becomes. UbuWeb is more than mere promotion for artist’s work: it is a global digital distribution outlet that increases the cultural value of work included on the site.

So how might all these things come together in the age of peer-to-peer networks, and the sharing of digital files across time and space? Videos circulate and are remixed, mashed up and broadcast over the web at an ever-increasing rate. They are being blown-up, torn apart, ripped, mixed and burned to such an extent that there is no going back. Images and sounds are coming unstuck, opening up a new space for the renegotiation of their associated history, archival context, and critical commentary. And in the process, innovative new ways of making, exhibiting, circulating, annotating and supplementing digital video works are emerging.

It is clear from this brief description that we are not talking about replicating YouTube, with its restrictive licence agreement, in this regard. Whatever the platform is for our new model, we need to link it, open it up, blow it apart - as that’s what is necessary to avoid the creation of yet another proprietary walled garden and individualised silo.

If the most popular video tools rely on closed, proprietary distribution systems, creativity and innovation will suffer. FLOSS video platforms are specifically designed to give video creators and viewers more freedom in the way they aggregate, browse and distribute video. Because they are open, they work with as many video hosting sites and video search engines as possible. Rather than being forced to use a few monopolistic services, the developers of FLOSS platforms believe that the future of media depends on creators being able to choose the publishing services that work best for them.

One example of an alternative approach is, which provides a searchable online archive that connects artists with curators, producers, and the public. The archive is open to all genres, whether short films, video installations or interviews. We could well adopt their mission as our own:

  • To establish an international hub of video artists, filmmakers and audiences.
  • To expand video arts into public spaces accessible to a wider audience.
  • To create an online community of filmmakers and artists.

If we can imagine a growing collection of digitised work with large “metadatabases” and tag clouds associated with the collection, we start to see how we can preserve, distribute and contextualise video art material in a recombinatory history/archive project. Using web interfaces we can sort, aggregate and recombine elements into multiple histories and new relations. In order to achieve this we need to use new open tools that help us grasp the power of the growing digital disorder. As a loosely connected network of interested curators, researchers and artists, we have a powerful new means of distribution at our disposal.

Professor Ross HarleyHead of School of Media Arts
College of Fine Arts, UNSW

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