On the 30th of June and 1st of July 2021 Aymeric Mansoux and me presented a talk and workshop for Screenwalks on practices of setting up and maintaining alternative computational infrastructures. Screenwalks is a programme of Fotomuseum Winterthur, The Photographers’ Gallery and the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image.
As part of the programme Screenwalks committed to using the libre and open source BigBlueButton via meet.cooprather than zoom, which is frankly audacious and a commendable move for an institutional setting to make. It was a bit more of a bumpy ride than it should have been, but that is also to be expected when using it the first time.
The day after we facilitated a workshop with the CSNI on the practice of running their own Mastodon instance. It particularly focused on the work after installation, which is the easy part. Running, maintaining, creating a nice culture are all much harder to achieve. The workshop involved both a tour of the software, a discussion of federated networks and considerations for governance and moderation. The instance is hosted for a month after the workshop. During this month participants either work out whether this particular instance is useful in their context and continue hosting it, let it expire or participants possibly regroup and start a new instance, now knowing on how to get started.
Below the extended descriptions of the event!
One-click install to autonomy?
Screenwalk with Aymeric Mansoux and Roel Roscam Abbing
Now that COVID19 has reignited conversations about digital autonomy and data sovereignty, it is useful to inform these discussions with lived accounts of both the challenges and opportunities of running self-managed online services and networked infrastructures.
In this presentation we will discuss three case studies, three projects that we are deeply involved with:
LURK: a small collective of artists/hackers interested in facilitating and archive discussions around net- and computational culture and politics, proto- and post-free culture practices, (experimental) (sound) (new media) (software) art, and things like that.
LUMBUNG.SPACE: an experiment to create an online environment where artistic practices rooted in diversity, solidarity and commoning can come together. The project investigates what alternative platforms by and for cultural practitioners could look like and how they should be jointly governed and sustained.
XPUB: The Experimental Publishing master at the Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam. This two-year Master of Arts in Fine Art and Design focuses on the acts of making things public and creating publics in the age of post-digital networks.
The common point of these three projects resides in their shared attempt to self-host and self-manage alternative online platforms and tools. We will screenwalk you through the web applications we run, the infrastructure we use, and we will discuss the time and energy it takes to support it all and why we value this approach. We will also zoom in and out to demonstrate the relative agency, and the relative autonomy of these practices, namely how collectives, institutions, and organizations are dependent on us but also how we are in turn also dependent on the work of many others.
Ultimately, we believe that the balance between the field of art and culture production and the tech industry, specially the sectors busy with computer technology and network services, is currently broken. It reaches the point where the field of art and culture production is ultimately shaped by social media platforms and novelty software as a service. At the same time this shaping does not mean knowledge and practices from art and culture inform the platforms they depend on in return. But rather the shaping acts to maintain certain privileges and economic systems in place. Think of how decades of pedagogical thinking and online artistic experiments have been thrown out of the window in the sudden rush to do everything on Zoom.
It does not have to be like this, but thinking of alternatives is also much more complicated than looking for a one-click install solution to autonomy.
Workshop: Welcome to the Federation
As a follow-up activity to our screenwalk, we will dive in one practical example of alternative social media platform, Mastodon, an open source software for federated micro-blogging, similar to but distinct from Twitter. Mastodon is currently one of the most visible platform that form the Fediverse.
The Fediverse is a combination of the terms “federation” and “universe.” It is a common name for interoperating social platforms running on Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) on a myriad of servers across places and cultures. The main difference between the Fediverse and commercial social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and so on), is that the vast majority are community-run and highly participatory. This means that anyone can take part in the development, maintenance, and growth of the Fediverse. While commercial social media concentrate millions of users on their servers, these federated systems are designed to be run by anybody and for any purpose. This radically challenges the way we relate to the social media platforms that we use and depend on. It also opens up possibilities to work toward less harmful social platforms. Does it mean the Fediverse has solved everything? No. Definitely not. It’s complicated and messy, but at least nobody from the Fediverse will pretend otherwise. Currently the Fediverse is the most active network laboratory to discuss and experiment with these issues.
Now, how can this be relevant to the practitioners, collectives, organizations, and institutions that are part of the field of art and culture production? Put simply, the relationship between tech and the field of art and culture production has always been extremely ambivalent. At best cultural practices have been empowered by new computer technologies so as to explore and push the boundaries of net/software/media art discourses and aesthetics, while enabling tactical media and culture jamming strategies for those with a political agenda. At worst though, art and culture production is completely instrumentalised by the tech industry who are essentially using the field’s cultural capital and practitioners’ precarity to introduce new products and services (NFTs, anyone?). In the case of social media, it turned the field into yet another source of disposable content that can be used to moneytize users eyeballs and mouse clicks.
At the same time we depend on such infrastructures to meet our peers, share and discuss work, create archives, find opportunities and share dank memes. This puts us in a difficult position. It does not mean we are convinced that social media is good for artists/musicians/galleries/etc, but so far we have not even been able to fully experiment with it ourselves.
Artists-run servers, mailing list discussions, BBS, and online web forum communities of practices are not new. However, so far, running contemporary social media has been quite out of reach, and our hypothesis is that our current understanding of such online interactions is possibly biased because of our negative exerience with mainstream social media, and also because the potential of these media is underdeveloped due to its skew towards extraction.
Who knows where this is going? We have to try to find out.
And this is exactly what we are going to do in this workshop, we will start from a blank Mastodon installation, discuss the client-server models it introduces, draft our terms and services, and possibly code of conduct, decide on who will be the admins, who are the moderators, what kind of content and discourse we would like to favour, and start explore together the Fediverse.