by Edward Picot
Click on images to see works
According to the website, 5+5=5 consists of "5 short movies about 5 UK-produced networked art projects... working with DIY approaches to digital technology."
One of the most attractive aspects of this collection is the self-deprecating sense of humour which comes across from many of the participants. For example, in David Valentine's video about Mongrel's Media Shed project, Graham Harwood disarmingly explains the group's devotion to free media: "We like things that are cheap." Chris Dooks, in his movie about his own Polyfaith website, gives a tongue-in-cheek assessment of its impact on Edinburgh culture: "Contemporary Edinburgh philosophers, mainly in pubs, are now calling this the Erica Tetralix effect". In Michael Szpakowski's video about Furtherfield's VisitorsStudio, Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield explains how she and her partner Marc Garrett work with Neil Jenkins, their technical director: "We ask Neil to do things that are kind of so difficult and annoying that he wouldn't normally think of doing them..."
Pub-culture, gleeful skinflintishness and goodhumoured pestering: there's something both endearingly amateurish and quintessentially British about these moments. But there's more to it than that. The deliberately-unsophisticated tone links to the "DIY approaches to digital technology" mentioned on the project website. The subtext is an attempt to demystify new media and thus make it more available to "ordinary" people. Hence Ruth Catlow, describing VisitorsStudio: "It's very easy to use; it's very very simple software." And Mongrel: "It's important to uncouple new media from new technology.... It could be a piece of paper or a photocopier or, you know, stickers..."
The opening shot of the Mongrel movie shows a man retrieving a computer monitor from a waste-paper bin. Mongrel's idea of "trying to do it cheap" includes a recycling ethic, and one of their themes is the re-use of dumped or currently-unused equipment. But the "Free" in Free Media means "politically liberated" as well as "costless". Mongrel are also attempting to escape the consumerist ethos of our society, where almost every piece of software or technical equipment comes with a brand-name and a price-tag attached, and where people's ideas and lives, by extension, are controlled by markets and big corporations.
The Furtherfield team have a similar world-view. In a recent article, co-authored with Olga Panades Massanet, Ruth Catlow complains that "web2.0 social softwares (such as Twitter, Flickr and Facebook)", although apparently "free", are actually exploiting "users' interactions... in the service of industrial 'bottom line' principles." Networking through these facilities thus becomes not an alternative to consumerist society but an extension of it. She contrasts this with "Free and Open Source Softwares... whose workings are transparent". In this context, VisitorsStudio (a facility for producing collaborative new media collages) can be seen as an attempt to promote "transparent" interaction between its participants, and to reposition new media art as a radical alternative to consumerism.
Viewed in this light, the down-to-earth and self-deprecating air which comes across from the 5+5=5 website has a polemical edge. But the art-for-the-people tightrope can be a difficult one for new media practitioners to tread, without wobbling into polemical artspeak on the one hand, or impenetrable technicalities on the other. Thus in Michael Szpakowski's video we have Ruth Catlow describing VisitorsStudio as follows: "It gives people of all ranges of experience an opportunity to participate in a kind of exploration of collaborative representation"; and shortly afterwards we hear Neil Jenkins, the "technical guy", explaining that "the front end is all built using Flash, and the back end is mostly Perl, using an SQL database and an SQL socket to the server".
Perhaps more problematic are the wobbles shown in other videos towards theoretically-correct art-by-numbers or guerilla-art posturing. Simon Poulter's Golden Shot (Revisited) asks participants to call out instructions to a paintball-gun which shoots at targets labelled "Iran", "Libya", "North Korea" and so forth. Poulter hopes this will make people think about Western imperialism and remote-controlled warfare. Want and Need, from the C6 group, asks members of the public (largely via stickers and spray-painted adverts on walls) to submit texts describing what they want and what they need. The texts are then converted into artworks portraying things like shoes and mobile phones. In their video, C6 portray themselves as "guerilla" artists on-the-go, spray-painting and stickering their way round the city. It's slick but vapid.
"For me," says Marc Garrett of VisitorsStudio, "it breaks down the singular identity of the artist... you're forced to collaborate." This is part of what "networked art" means - art produced by collaborative networks rather than individuals - yet the most artistically successful material on the 5+5=5 site is also the most powerfully individual. The opening sequence of Michael Szpakowki's movie "So that we can see the conversation that we have to make the work" blends layered sound, layered images, slow motion, faces turned upside-down, text and split-screen effects in a video poetry which is entirely his own. Just as individualistic is Chris Dooks' movie Polyfaith, about his project of the same name: a memorial to Erica Tetralix, deceased philosopher, who before she died created an alternative tour of Edinburgh, reinterpreting everyday sights as magical signs. Paint splashed on a pavement becomes Japanese calligraphy; an oddly-shaped patch on a wall becomes a rabbit looking over its shoulder. In this way, says Dooks, the alternative tour offers its participants "spiritual experiences and epiphanies". But Polyfaith is more complex than it seems. Erica Tetralix isn't a real person: it's the Latin name for bell heather. Her life-history is a sly fiction, and the alternative tour of Edinburgh is actually the brainchild of Dooks himself.
New media art can sometimes be bewilderingly high-tech or impenetrably theoretical. 5+5=5 demonstrates that it can also be down-to-earth and accessible, yet still produce moments of magic.
1 : Ruth Catlow and Olga Panades Massanet,
FutureSonic: Environment 2.0, 2009, Furtherfield, 2009.