Production of a Sol Lewitt Wall-Drawing

Production of a Sol Lewitt wall drawing for the exhibition "Sol LeWitt: 2D+3D" at the Walker Art Center, November 18, 2010-April 24, 2011.

It’s a fact that artists have been more likely to steal than to share. Nevertheless, we are quickly reaching a cultural moment where appropriation will no longer be controversial or necessary. Since the early 1990’s, artists have been learning to take advantage of the the internet as an infrastructure designed primarily and fundamentally for the effortless and rapid distribution of informational content. It is conceivable that one day soon, there will no longer be questions about who has the authority to reproduce or distribute a work. Rather, those questions will center on whether or not distribution will even be necessary (at least in the traditional sense of one-to-many distribution, where the work is only publicly available at one place and at one time).

Recent shows such as Lauren Cornell’s Free or Karly Wildenhaus’ TWICE REMOVED highlight works characterized by their ability to be either freely dispersed, or to be anonymously produced, outsourced, crowdsourced, etc. Increasing mainstream recognition of collaborative image-making platforms such as Tumblr, or 4Chan show us that digital art-making can truly thrive without the validation of the usual institutional or financial channels. And because these un-professionally sanctioned arenas rely heavily on open inclusion and participation, there is a sense that anyone with a laptop, a taste for image-making, and a decent command of Adobe design software (and maybe also a little experience with HTML) can comfortably take on a digital arts practice. It’s true that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish a new media artist from a freelance designer/programmer. Both will often use the same tools, with a comparable degree of (usually self-taught) expertise. Indeed, it is almost inevitable that a new media artist will need to straddle the two creative spheres of commercial design and fine art proper at one point or another.

In her recent essay Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Martha Rosler takes a look at the increased intermingling of artists and professional “creatives” in contemporary society. She suggests that as artists become more integrated into the service and knowledge industries, they also become more domesticated, fulfilling a “professionalized function within an advanced service economy.”  Consequently, art becomes both more “professionalized” and more “democratized.” If anyone can do it, this must mean that it’s a career option. On an institutional level, there are already a large number of mechanisms in place to “teach” art-making to anyone interested. Online, there are even more. This is perhaps symptomatic of a larger trend within the emergence of the creative class; the belief that “creatives” are inherently capable of producing anything or perfecting any service; cooking, massage, web development, corporate design, feng shui, public sculpture. The ads for the Chicago-based apartment listing service Domu illustrate this ideal perfectly. Each character in the ad plays two roles; one infrastructural/industrial/professional, the other more “quirky”/liberated/expressive. For the creative class, there is time, room and permission for both lifestyles at once. Ultimately, we seem to be heading towards a world where we can all be civil engineers, yoga teachers, computer programmers, pastry chefs, and, of course, artists; all simultaneously and with ease.

But as compelling as her diagnoses are, Rosler’s observations do not account for the role of the amateur within the creative class, that hybridity of professionalism and hobbyism which empower the DIY nature of the creative. Furthermore, there is no discussion of the skill-(and file-) sharing, most strongly advocated by the open-source and free culture movements, that enables the individual production of goods and the idiosyncratic perfection of skills or services that characterize the “creative.” This leads us to the question: can these ideals of communal didactism be a signal of real resistance to the service economy, or are they just a sign of further complicity?

While the relation of the open-source movement proper to the global marketplace is complicated to say the least, with many opposing philosophies co-existing together (on the one hand, we have Wikileaks; on the other, Linux), there is no doubt that the emergence of the open-source ethos has provoked a massive disruption to those working in any media industry. As artists start to follow suit and distribute their works more widely on the internet (as opposed to simply documenting them), or to literally give away works for free IRL, this could indicate, on the surface at least, a similarly radical subversion of the art market and a rejection of the scarcity imposed by commercial galleries, private collectors and museums. The question left for us in the light of Rosler’s observations, then, is whether a widespread practice of art-sharing could disrupt the market in a way that is comparable to what has happened to the software, print and music industries.

But why stop at distributing copies of works? What if we were to also share the knowledge and process behind the production of those works, so that they can either be produced continuously, or improved upon, or revised, or taken somewhere else completely? There would be no point in stealing a work when everyone’s ideas, thoughts and images are produced with the intention that they will first and foremost be put to use, and only secondarily be displayed for contemplation.

Production of a Sol Lewitt wall drawing for MASS MoCA's "Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective," November 16, 2008 through 2033.

When taking on a new project (commercial or not), the new media artist must often spend an inordinate amount of time sifting through search results for software-related queries such as “how to remove background from image” or “how to download a YouTube video” or “how to convert flv to mov” and so on. It’s even possible that digital artists (and not only digital artists) depend more heavily on the crowd-sourced folk knowledge of user-driven online forums than on anything learned in a $3000+/semester studio class. Well, now is our chance to give back. For this upcoming series of posts, I’ve asked a group of artists to share documentation of a past or current project of theirs in the form of an online how-to. Each how-to is meant to give the reader enough information to accurately reproduce the project presented. In order to reduce issues of artistic ownership, each artist’s contribution has been more or less “anonymized” before posting, with as many overt references to the the individual artist or original project removed as possible. For the next two weeks, this guest blog column will function as a practical art-making resource, as well as a vehicle for the un-distribution of existing works, all (mostly) free of copyright. After all, why buy a work, when you can just make it yourself?

Bob Ross' "Mystic Mountain" as animated GIF.