Interview with LB: Media Artist
“Right now, I’m really enjoying low-key, small scale, non-competitive, ‘let’s just help each other out’ art projects, instead of anything else.”
Issues around physical, virtual and social space drive media artist, LB, to advocate a change in our individual and cultural mindsets, helped by ‘open source’ education for all, to realise the possibilities for genuinely free speech and social liberty through free-use technologies.
Tell me about your practice.
If I am to define my practice, I think it would fit loosely into media arts – but in terms of continental European media arts. I’m hesitant to define or to choose one name for it, or an art form or discipline, simply because my practice has been shifting continuously since 1992. I came from an architectural, formal education and that kind of spiralled out of control completely, because I was feeling really stifled by architecture at that time. I was considering architecture as my future profession, but I was full of conflicts about this. I had a really strong desire to find a mode of self-expression and so I began searching and experimenting with various mediums – everything from painting to sculpture etc., until I started working with sound and video. Eventually, internet and computers came into my life, in the second part of the 90s, and then that kind of defined the rest of my work.
The last major public appearance I had was in 2009 and it was for a project that was an outdoor video installation, and I really liked it. I thought it was a good project that would generate more work for me, but that didn’t happen. Simultaneously, as I was finishing that piece of work, that had a budget of £30,000, the economy’s financial crisis happened and I thought ‘why the **** am I spending over £30,000 on this – money that can be spent elsewhere?…is this really worth it?…is this a life-changing experience for people?’ On those grounds, I kind of pulled away from these large public-funded projects.
Right now, I’m really enjoying low-key, small scale, non-competitive, ‘let’s just help each other out’ art projects, instead of anything else.
What really drives me is this course that I’m developing at the University of Westminster which is about free, liberal, open-source 1 art and design, and I really am fully committed to advocating for it and making it happen. I want it to become a reality in the curricular of higher education. Something similar exists at Goldsmiths, but we need more. We need more education in that area and we need more people that are well informed about these practices. Free culture and practices.
Define your personal workspace.
It’s really difficult because right now I don’t have a studio space where I exclusively go to work and make art. So the majority of my work happens here. This is a live-work space. It’s designed to be a one bedroom flat but I’m kind of repurposing the space. The rest of my work happens in various shared spaces. I’m not sub-letting or anything per-say, but I have some friends who have good studio labs, where I go to occasionally to work. I also go to Hackspace, where I’ve been a member for maybe two years now.
Hackspace, on Hackney Road in London, is a really wonderful space. It’s based – I think this would be a good description – on the idea of a makers’ space, and it’s a shared resource with a membership. It’s a rather large space across two floors. The ground floor is like a little classroom. There’s also one large, shared desk-space with some sofas which is mainly used by people with their laptops and those who do electronic and digital stuff. On the ground floor, there’s a wood-workshop, metal-workshop and various other stuff. This is a really wonderful, relatively new initiative. Hackspace has been going on for a few years now. It has a strong membership crowd and we all pay to use the space(s). I pay £5 per month but I’m not a heavy user. I go there occasionally to maybe cut a piece of plywood or something. It’s all DIY. You have to have an induction for some of the tools, like a laser cutter and that sort of stuff. In London it’s incredibly difficult to have a proper studio space. It’s just incredibly expensive and I don’t know how many of us make enough money to have a well-supplied, well-equipped workshop.
Open source technology and experimenting is a very empowering and liberating practice, and people need to know about it. Especially with all these funding cuts and closures. There are alternatives, and open source media and arts and design is thriving as a practice. I’ve been going to Libre Graphics meetings for two years now and I have been astonished by how many typographers are completely opening up and running wild with these ideas. So, here I am, fighting this fight and trying to get the bureaucrats and management at Westminster to understand the importance of all this. Simultaneously, I’m working with a few people in the very few places left, that are still interested in these kinds of ideas, like Furtherfield Gallery. I’m also negotiating with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is like a mastodon, and Space Studios. With them, I’m trying to organise an event, ideally in December.
I want to get Libre Graphics to come to London in 2016. Next year, we’re going to Toronto and in two years’ time, we’re coming back here. This is one of the reasons I want to have a series of public events in the run-up, to create a buzz around the city. It’s very important. Another thing about artistic practice, and all of that software is the licensing we all have to pay for – it’s an issue for people like me. This year I have made £200 and €200 off my artistic practice. That is all the money I have earned as an artist this year.
As far as the working space is concerned, it is incredibly difficult in this part of the city, to find an affordable, available space. There’s a place around the corner which we have been trying to animate somehow for events, so that we can use the space for free, to host free workshops and that sort of stuff. It’s really, really hard to get them on board. Instead, we ended up in the space where we had this recent event – it’s called the Common House, which is a shared space. So this is also a kind of collective-use environment like Hackspace. But in the case of Common House, there were a few activist groups that came together to pay the rent together, and so we are sharing the space. We are a little computer lab group that is interested in security issues, various experimentations and the defetishisation of technology. We want to break taboos around technology.
How is it for artists these days, to find space and will you move from the live-work model?
It gets harder for artists. There’s a really beautiful studio building space that is run by ACME and I subscribe to their waiting list because I think, that a place nearby, down the road and across the canal, could work for me. But I think that I will have to wait a-million years before I am considered to even share a space with someone. Given the fact that I’m part-time employed and I haven’t really made money out of my art practice for a long time now, any sort of investment in a space outside of what I already have, sometimes feels like an extravagant expenditure. I’m thinking of approaching a really good friend of mine, who lives kind of diagonally from here, about 300m up the road. He has one of the last kind of industrial-style, live/work spaces called Raylab and for media arts, this is a very important location because there’s been a great number of really amazing ideas that came out of there – some really ground-breaking, pioneering work, over the last 20 years.
Some time ago, I was trying to get him to actively come up with a series of programmes or something to open up the space a little bit, but it’s difficult. He does open up the space occasionally – mainly, a party here and there. But it used to be that there were bands and all sorts of screenings, performances, working meetings and so on.
There’s very little affordable space. But there’s lots of so-called ‘creative industries’. Across the street, there’s a building filled with fashion designers and various design agencies. But rents are so high, and people can’t really generate that much money. So the amount of changes of people just moving in, moving out, moving in, moving out,….it’s like a merry-go-round over there. Even the squatters are all wiped out now, from this area. It seems like slim pickings for space.
I don’t think I’m ready to move out of London yet. I think it’s imminent but I don’t know when. I’ve been living here 12 years. Moving and re-rooting requires a lot of effort and energy: reestablishing your professional life, your social life and everything.
Do you notice a difference in how artists abroad are valued, compared to the UK?
I am surrounded by arty people and academics. So, I am not entirely sure of general public perception of what we do and of the importance of our activities. But I remember distinctly, a conversation I had recently with someone from a Cyber Salon event. They had just visited Austria for an event and they had direct contact with local artists – the majority of whom, had some sort of salary. So, that sparked a conversation about the perception of what culture and arts means in continental Europe and in the UK. There really is a stark difference between the general appreciation and awareness of value and of arts and cultural engagement, especially for the youth. In the case of Austria, having regular artistic and cultural activities is seen as part of general education, and part of a shared common value and experience. Whereas here in the UK, there are heavy remnants of old, elitist, bourgeoisie stereotypes and ideas that money equals art. I don’t think this really damaging, stereotypical presentation is challenged enough by ourselves, as artists. The practicing artists I know, who are really successful, are probably the hardest working people I have ever met and with such a drive and such a focus – it’s unbelievable. But there is another financial issue: there are people who choose to step into the art market and work for commercial galleries and there are people who decide not to do it. And this is then creating a whole set of other concerns – both sides have real problems. I am far more critical about the commercial market but it’s very complicated, I think.
In London where there is such an enormous amount of people, you can be seduced by the number of possibilities this city can offer. It happens to a lot of people who come here. There is this idea, that having an ambition and succeeding and all that sort of stuff, creates meaning in your life, and this generates enormous drive. People often work like crazy in this insane economy. So many times, artists have worked for nothing but peanuts, which is now the problem for people who are working outside of commercialism, and this drives me insane. It is why I finally said ‘**** all this!’. I want to work with people who have a beneficial, open-ended influence and to somehow share. We need to just get away from this madness of unpaid labour and exploitation. There is too much of it.
Open source technology offers one solution to finding space. Can you tell me about the origins of free technology and where it could take us?
Within the shifting practice of media arts there’s a strand of practice that has been working with technology in a special sort of way – not in a way that digital arts or technology is seen in the wider sea of arts production, where it is seen as a facilitation or a slave to some creative expressions. This is a form of art that is really probing the nature of technology. It is using technology as a material, a narrative, and a concept, so actual code becomes a piece of art, in the case of software. Or, hardware becomes a piece of art. And through that experimentation with art, artists have created a space of critical reflection that questions what this technology does to us. Also, what do we do to it? And how does this relationship exist? This experimentation is simultaneously connected to other technology-related developments or social and historical events (events, for the lack of a better word) and it is rooted in developers’ culture, programmers culture and hacking culture. Sometime, in the late 70s, Richard Stallman and others addressed this thing of technology and man-made rules controlling and ruling people, and so they picked things apart and created a new set of rules in which sharing, collaboration, copying, manipulation and dissemination of new derivative works is encouraged, is free, is legal. When I say free, I don’t refer only to money, but also freedom as liberty. Out of this experimentation, a software culture of artists grew. They immediately got into it and started developing artistic practices that are either simulating or fully adopting this set of rules.
Now, there is a whole variety of really amazing practices. FLOSS (Free Liberal Open Source Software) arts and design, in the context of the course I am advocating, means this type of art practice allows you to control technology and not the other way around. I am in a proactive mood to find out what we can do about it.
Open source computer software and its source code is available to all, based on the license holder providing the rights to examine, change and distribute to whomever for whatever purpose.
2 In this sense, defetishisation of technology is the process of acknowledging our denial, as a culture, in the creation of technology and working through ways to come to terms with these consequences. The process aims to provide transparency on social relationships while working toward true democracy.
3 Richard Stallman is a computer programmer and software freedom activist, responsible for pioneering advances in the availability of free software for all. He is the founder of the GNU operating system which offers opportunities for free, publicly available software and continues the movement for freedom of speech.