(Semi-)Commercial Publishing as Community
by Pauline van Mourik Broekman
mute digitalartcritique is a quarterly art and technology broadsheet published in London and distributed worldwide. mute is online at http://www.metamute.co.uk.




Most people are simultaneously part of many different communities. I was recently reading a piece by a proselytiser of etiquette for the cyber "community." It was the first time I'd encountered a description of the entirety of cyberspace as a community. As this term becomes more and more elastic, ever-larger and more encompassing, it also seems to leak significance by the bucket-full. Describing a global cyber-community implies the possibility, if not the reality, of cyberspace as an inclusive arena. To pretend that the values of any truly global and inclusive group could be described in a common language is anathema to me. Not only are there the very basic problems of national and regional "languages" to take into account, there are also cultural matters.

Consider the following situation in Japan, a country known for its high tech industries and a society that's been relatively slow to take up e-mail. The rosy reports of employees crossing rigid social hierarchies to e-mail their bosses with bright ideas just didn't translate. There is a basic incompatibility between e-mail's supposed "leveling" social functions and existing Japanese cultural values. More generally, though, this example is a reminder that the debate about "common" community values is still constructed from a Western perspective.

The Internet is playing a hugely important role in the creation of communities, I just think that the notion of 100 percent of us included in a single, global, cyber-community is a myth. Online communities develop around a complex configuration of common interests in concert with additional factors such as language, profession, or sexual inclination. The degree to which any association sees itself as group or a community largely depends on its initial reason for being. Is a newsgroup dedicated to the latest plug-ins for Photoshop operating in a comparable way to one with more conventional "community" associations? I doubt it.

But then, I feel the same way talking about some generalized cyber community as I would hearing some sort of national "community" invoked in a campaign speech by Bill Clinton. "Community" is increasingly being used in a similarly vague way in English politics. All parties refer to it- although Labour does so most often, usually in tandem with such words as "civil society"--to demonstrate their commitment to an inclusive society. Rarely is the concept of community underpinned with clear policies that might help make such conditions a reality.

Describing the building of cyber-communities as active micro-politics does the Net more justice. Likewise, perhaps, for the metaphor of a feudal anarchy, which has been used to describe the Net and especially Usenet groups. (An individual newsgroup may be "feudal" in the sense that its administrator wields ultimate power over it, yet none of its subscribers or administrator have any say over what happens on other newsgroups, which coexist in the same realm.) So, on one hand, these descriptions take into account the self-organising aspects of cyber-social structures, as well as their lack of central, elected, decision-making or regulatory authority, as with democratic governments. On the other hand, they begin to seem a bit romantic In the face of increasing, corporate dominance of the Net, the spate of technology-related IPOs (initial public offerings), the growth of limited-access Intranets and private chat areas, and the recent, mostly successful, attempts at censorship by governments throughout the world. But they do emphasise the small and multiple over the centralised and singular. To me, this is crucially important in connection with community.

What role do publications play in creating community? I see the reading of publications partly as a private activity and partly as a social activity. The social element comes into play, of course, when an article is discussed or responded to in some way, but also through the reader's knowledge that (s)he is part of a group of article-readers brought together by a particular publication. It comes into play when you ponder this imagined community. This sense of community can be nurtured or neglected by the publication for a variety of reasons. The idea of responding to feedback can merely be the basis for creating increased synthesis between the reader and the magazine in order to increase revenues. Responding to feedback can also be the basis for making that imagined community more concrete.

Publications act as a forum for discussion and consequently play a part in creating community. mute was started by artists--myself and Simon Worthington. So initially, it was the (English) art community we mainly had in mind as our potential audience. We wanted to instigate a more engaged debate regarding the uses of new technologies in art, design, and architecture, and to look at a broad range of related theoretical and social issues. Much of the mainstream art press is characterized by the attitude that until digital art works reach some imagined zenith of conceptual and technical sophistication, they are not worth a careful look--except as the embodiment of some cultural will to virtuality. Similarly with software and hardware: Little attention has been paid to the crucial, and often determining, role they play in art/design production. Nor, on a practical level, even which packages are good or bad.

In mute we wanted to investigate interdisciplinary projects being created with digital technologies, (online or off-), but not to remove them from their (art) historical context. We felt it was very important to include texts by the many different practitioners involved in these hybrid media, whether programmers, theoreticians, activists, critics, curators, publishers, or comic artists. This growing community of contributors has had an important role in shaping mute's editorial direction (which, for the first five issues, was partly thematic.)

Of course, as an editor it is difficult to circumvent the issue of financing. I often wonder to what degree mute's identity and content is determined by the way in which it is financed. mute doesn't run on the basis of a brief with a funding agency or academic body, it is subsidised by Skyscraper Publishing's other, digital-design projects and sporadic small grants from the Arts Council of England for travel and promotion. We work collaboratively with authors--who we can't pay--and run at a loss, a scenario that is as typical of independent publishing as it is for artists working in digital media. Many of my peers regard this situation with a kind of deep pragmatism. Trying to absolutely separate commerce, artistic autonomy, and employment, is seen as unproductive and unrealistic. This is less the cynicism or tunnel vision of a virtual class--awareness of the contradictory social implications of digital technologies is broad--and more a desire to work through the possibilities these technologies afford.

On a global level, arts funding structures vary widely. Consider for example, the funding situations in the U.S., Australia, England, and the Netherlands (or other continental European countries.) After the recent "culture wars" and cutbacks in arts funding in the U.S., or the hostile political climate that continues to prevail in post-Thatcher England, the state-funded Dutch scenario probably looks like heaven to many English and American artists. Perhaps the entrepreneurial drive in Anglo American culture demands a different kind of community than does the socialist-democratic model. After the English art market slumped in 1991, the DIY (do it yourself) attitude that was associated with the late 80's rave scene came to the fore in all the arts. Independent, artist-run spaces generated some of the most challenging exhibitions available.

Whatever the merits or problems of various funding structures, they greatly influence not just arts practice, but the infrastructure that surrounds those practices--including conferences, publishing, education, and discourse of all sorts. These financial contexts and constraints affect the kinds of discussion fora that are emerging about new media, whether online and off. This is also why inexpensive, online, listservs like Rhizome are so interesting to me. They've boldly cultivated the idea of "potlach" (or gift) culture--dare I say community?--as their central, organising principle. mute's community must be sustained through other, less direct models of editorial methodology, exchange, and resource building.




Pauline van Mourik Broekman is an artist and the co-editor of mute digitalartcritique. She left the Netherlands in 1987, and, from 1988-1991, attended St. Martin's School of Art and Design in London. In 1994, she founded Skyscraper Digital Publishing and began to publish mute.



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