I want to take a few minutes to address the DevArt show and controversy. There’s been a lot of back and forth on twitter, but I am not sure if it’s that easy to address each other in 140 character chunks, especially as long reply to lists cut that down to even less characters. My phone is buzzing constantly with twitter mentions and back and forth. I’m still overseas, my roaming data will be painful :)
I made one of the projects in the show and I’ve worked pretty closely with the team responsible for this project for the last 9 months, so I feel like I have a good understanding of their intentions and some of the controversy around this project, and I’d like to try to articulate some of the critiques and briefly make a few suggestions for paths forward. In America, there’s a lot of very misguided conversation and arguments around “corporations as people” from a legal perspective, but in this conversation, Google for me really is people — it’s David, Emma, Olaya, Steve, Tom, Indy, Joao and Janay — a small group of people in the Creative Lab here, not a multi-national giant, not Sergi and Larry, not Presidents and VPs, just a group here who pushed for this project and have always been very much focused on the artworks. They’ve gone to bat for the artists and have really done as much as they can to help produce the new works, from helping zip-tie works, to running in a mad dash for supplies, to vacuuming frantically before the event, they’ve been solely focused on the exhibition. I have never worked with a more thoughtful and supportive group.
Now that exhibition has opened, they’re still in the space helping organize workshops for school children in the mornings, trying to convince 10,11, and 12 year olds that we can do strange things with electricity and code. For the last few days, I’ve been jamming with school kids on MakeyMakeys in the exhibition space. It’s been a bit of a marathon for the whole team.
First, let me at the outset say that to hear the whole project, including the works that came out of it described as a “marketing stunt” or “ad campaign” is fairly painful. I’ve worked on marketing stunts before (!), I know what they feel like and this wasn’t that. I didn’t just spend months creating a new project as a stunt, it’s also not fair to artists like Beatrice and Cyril, who won the competition, and whose project is a real thing of beauty — (it stands for me w/ Vector Park and Design I/O as some of the most gorgeous interactive work I’ve ever seen)— And to Varvara and Mar and Karsten who also produced great heartfelt new projects. The works we made were made for no other reason then that we wanted to see them made. They were not made to push an agenda, to promote google services, etc. Of course there were constraints on the projects (more on this below) and there was the google brand behind the projects, but we were all aware of the tradeoffs and were given time, space and money to focus intensely on something and make something new. This is not to say, “hey look at the work that came out of this” but rather, being involved on the inside it’s clear to see that the folks here have been really work first and have made countless decisions and sacrifices to make a great exhibition. To dismiss the whole project is to dismiss the work of the artists involved.
Now, to the criticism of the DevArt project — I think personally there are valid and important points that should be made about how DevArt was implemented and as a community, I think it would be good to try to articulate how it might be handled better next time, both for Google (if they are not too burnt out to engage again) and for other companies, who might be considering some level of involvement in this community. I think there are several key missteps and they relate to communication, branding and marketing. My general impression is that it was a project with a large budget and small timeframe which both elevated the stakes and also meant there was less time to organically grow a solution that was more acceptable to the community or to respond to criticism in any meaningful way.
As I see it, there are 3 specific complaints:
a) The use of the term DevArt
b) The requirement to use Google technology in the artworks
c) The public nature of the competition
The most egregious mis-step in my opinion was (a) the promoting of the term DevArt as something new. I personally cringed when I read the copy on the website, “DevArt is a new form of art” — I immediately flagged this language to folks at google when I read it, but it was also pretty clear to me that this was a form of marketing speak, the sort of light language you might hear about Coke Zero for example, and I am somewhat used to this from agency work. It’s a sort of natural language for companies to communicate, i.e. “Coke Zero is a new form of refreshment” — light, effervescent, ultimately not feet on the ground, but I also think here it’s got the potential to be quite problematic and very easily misunderstood. It’s easy to misconstrue this as “land grab” attempt by Google to rename an entire medium and brand it as their own. I think it’s more a quite naive marketing approach — their goal here (and I know this from multiple people behind the project) was promote and celebrate the work in the creative coding community. I think they were absolutely wrong to not full address the history and culture and I think this was a pretty large mis-step, but I don’t believe their intentions were at all about repackaging this community. I think they sound more naive then sinister here but it’s understandable how and why this riled people.
Another cause of concern is the required use of google technology in the artworks. I think the Guardian article made good, fair points about this and I wont repeat them here, but it’s definitely worth a read. Personally, I didn’t pay much attention to this requirement — if there is a continuum of art and design it felt like it placed the project slightly more to the design world (open-ended but must do X), but I also found that it was a very easy requirement to fulfill. I’ve done a lot of proposals that involve boxes you have to fill in and that seemed like something I just had to find a way to fill in (ie, check the box off) and not central to the work. I paid absolutely no attention to it when I proposed my projects and in the end I found it to be like a houdini handcuff, seemingly constraining but actually not at all in practice — it surfaced almost not at all in my conversations about the work and it wasn’t central to the process of making the project. I could understand why a purist would absolutely resist this, and I think it’s right to investigate the question of wether an offer to help with google tech vs. a requirement to use google tech would have been a better way to frame this.
One underreported fact is that the other requirement was that artists work openly and share their process — I think this was a actually a pretty useful requirement and I personally learned tons reading other people’s processes (not to overly highlight them, but Cyril and Beatrice’s page is incredibly helpful, for me it’s a model example of seeing a project develop and grow). I do wish more commissions promote this kind of process and think about integrating publishing, there’s a great deal to be gained in asking people to keep ongoing records of their work and to demystify the process.
Finally, there’s been a fair amount of criticism of the competition. I think some of the criticism is valid — perhaps a public facing (where proposals are open to the public) competition with a new community is not the right approach. I think some institutions, like Rhizome for example, that have a long history with the community can do. They for example, have community awarded commissions where the Rhizome members evaluates and votes on proposals. It’s about having a level of trust. Some criticism, saying for example that you have to work for 2 months for google for free is not entirely accurate — it was a requirement of 5 posts — but I can understand why for many this didn’t seem like a worthwhile competition for some. I did meet people along the way who found this working in a public a good way to get motivated to move on a project. I’m pretty convinced there may better ways to run the competition and that if this was done again, there would be an alternative approach.
I think all of these criticisms have some degree of validity and I’ve tried to express this to the team at google, many of whom I consider close friends at this point. I know that they are open minded and listening intensely to this debate. I’ve invited them to join in at some point, I know they would like to explain some of the history behind the project and make sure their intentions (if not implementation) are well understood.
I think the best thing that the community can lobby for is a recommendation that I’m going to crib from Carol Becker, dean of the art school at Columbia University:
Have artists present at the table when important decisions are being made.
I think some of the missteps here could have been avoided by integrating members of the community into the planning of this project. I think artists at the table, not just to defend the roles and rights of members of the community, but also to offer some guidance regarding framing and history. Companies tend to operate in a bit of an ahistorical vacuum (for example, think of all the announcements made in convention centers / places without history) and having folks there to help provide context will be crucial.
Additionally, I think we should try to articulate clear principles about corporate involvement, and help steer companies in the right direction. There will be missteps and incongruence, but if we can articulate best practices I think we can help focus positive energy (desire to promote work and help the community) in beneficial directions. Julia Kaganskiy has already started tweeting about this and there seems to be a group interested to discuss this.
I also think it’s important that we do more to write our own histories — I am thinking of great projects like Holo, for example — we need to make sure that as a community, we tell our stories better then any company can. We need to make our history indelible, and when companies come knocking, share it with them and help them see avenues for supporting and growing this.
Finally, let’s keep this conversation going — I’ve been heartened to see so much back and forth. As a community we need these touch points to better articulate what we want moving forward. I think there’s better pathways to have this kind of support going forward and we should find them.