Why MARCEL, Art & the Network

Art has been migrating to the network ever since it began, my own first experience dating from
1981. Today many artists are already active in the network space and a very dispersed artistic
presence exists and has existed for several years. Bandwidth has improved and has become
readily available meaning that more elaborate artistic experimentation with even less expensive
connections is now possible.

In that light, why MARCEL? At its inception, MARCEL was an original idea which was meant to
bring attention to the importance of art and artists being present in what was becoming the new
communication space. It was a mobilizing idea for raising consciousness about the importance
of the artistic dimension in communication and communication technology and the social sphere
in general, particularly when confronted by new tools, processes and procedures. The question
is whether such a mobilising idea and the effort behind it is still necessary.

I feel quite certain that it is. Even thought there is a massive amount of art – not all good or
interesting – operating over the network, it is scattered throughout the network space and lacks
an identity giving it any force or influence vis-à-vis society as a whole. It lacks an immediately
identifiable presence giving it the necessary weight to affect the functioning of the network in a
direction useful to art. Not everyone in art has to be part of that movement but a critical mass is
essential to create a visible space where art can function and where artistic concerns can be

Institutions today, particularly those involved in art, education and culture, cannot ignore the network.
It is becoming more and more the dominant technological manifestation of our society’s
communication space where those efforts will increasingly take place and be transmitted and
exchanged. Not being present in it will make their efforts incrementally irrelevant just as those
cities which declined and were bypassed by the railroad saw their importance subside. For
those institutions to remain effective a strong network presence and operation is crucial, meaning
that time, effort and resources must be directed to it. The network dimension must be integrated
into their programmes and their members made aware of the necessity to operate within it.

The experimentation that has been going on in multicasting is a case in point. Access Grid, the
most prevalent platform that exists for it, has been used by artists for many years. While artists
are good at dealing with the imperfections of any technological system, often turning them to
their advantage, Access Grid because of its limitations has disillusioned many artists after initially
trying to work with it. That has been because that platform has not been evolving in a way
that artists can appreciate let alone use. The conclusion is that there is still not a multicasting
platform that functions well for art and the technological sector is not about to build one.

Artists must take that in hand. Thus the need for coordinated cross-disciplinary working groups
addressing such technical questions in the context of art.

One of the interesting yet frustrating aspects of the network and its development is the fact that
many people around the world are working on the same thing. For example, hundreds of people
are working on archives of past work and many of them are developing incompatible systems,
tools and procedures duplicating what is happening elsewhere. That energy could be better
channelled and directed through collaboration and the results more spectacular and efficient
with a greater impact on the operation of the network. The combined efforts of artists would
have a larger say on how the network evolves.

Another compelling reason for artists to act together is that Internet is moving in the direction of
other 20th century media in that it is becoming more and more driven by advertising. This will
mean the decisions concerning the future of the network will be made to accommodate that
activity to the detriment of person to person communication and the founding ideal of Internet
and the Web. An effort must be made to preserve at least parts of the network space for art,
culture and education. Artists must have a network identity to participate in that demand and to
assure that they have an open space where experimentation can continue.

The need for services for the arts over the network is enormous and cannot be addressed by
one or two institutions. This again should be a joint effort with several partners working in
small teams to develop functions, as well as data bases, which best meet their needs but
which can be shared with others. The sum of that activity would definitely be greater than the
parts and it should have a central point where those efforts could be easily identified and

Art in most developed countries is funded by national governments. Art over the network is
international and does not easily fall into a category recognised by most government funders.
An internationally recognised art effort can address this problem more easily than individual
artists or arts organisations. By the same token, success by one member in one country
becomes a precedent for others in other countries, which can be used to move funding organisations
to recognise the importance of one or another activity. This was one of the founding ideas behind
MARCEL, to be able to build on each others’ successes as a way of moving forward in what was then
a vacuum. An example is the success members have had in bringing the operators of the academic
network in the UK to recognise the validity of having artists-run centers as part of the academic
network. That precedent could be useful to artists elsewhere. Other examples exist.

Another reason for a coordinated artistic presence over the web is that much of its content
comes with little or no evaluation. Value judgements are suspended as everyone scrambles to
be present in network space. “Gate Keepers” are rare and there is a growing awareness of the
need for weighing content, recommending some things over others. This again should be a joint
venture directed by the participants themselves as those most concerned by the communication
of art. And this before it becomes another commercial exercise functioning uniquely through the
operation of the market where the incentive to doing anything useful is replaced by the drive to
make money.

MARCEL is also an experiment in self-organization, a totally lateral organization with no central
governing institution. There are project coordinators, managers, heads of working groups, etc.,
but no CEO making the big decisions. I have acted as a kind of international coordinator to get
the network started, but am moving more and more into the background as aspects of the network
take on a life of their own. Most coming together on the web consists of groups of unassociated
people connecting to express their self, more often their ego. Very little collaboration happens
and most communication is one-way only.

MARCEL is based on collaboration in virtual space and could be seen as a prototype of a new
horizontal organizational structure including multiple separate parallel projects. It is made
up of independently collaborating smaller structures, working groups, web managers, which, in
the long run will make up its overall operation – networks within networks within networks.
Whether it will work is too early to tell. That will be the test of its third five-year plan which is
where the project is at this point in time.

One of the interesting aspects of this project is that it is being built principally by artists or
people aligned with art. As the artist Robert Irwin describe it, “perception is the subject of art”,
and “art exists not in objects but as a way of seeing”. The process of communication is implicit
in art and artists using communication technology not only expand their communication potential
but also reflect on the operation of those technologies. Their efforts integrate those tools into our
culture at a level considerably different from commercial media. This brings to network development
a different modus operandi, one closer to the traditional role of art, communicating the results of
a personal interaction with one’s environment in an aesthetic manner through mastering certain
tools of communication. Artistic collaboration around that goal has always existed and bringing it
into virtual space is a natural step. Facets of a new Reality are to be found in the compilation of
those efforts demonstrating why the physicist John Wheeler defined “Meaning - objective reality -
as the joint product of those who communicate.”

In sum, art still needs an identifiable territory in the virtual space of the network. It is, at this
point, a very indeterminate space with a geography very different from the geographies of the
past. It will not be hierarchical – a pyramid – or any of the many forms currently proposed. It
will require new not yet defined roles, new professions in the arts, new art institutions as well
as new functions and possibilities for individual artists. Its shape is to be determined by its
activities responding to the demands of artists and their collaborators. We will know its form by
building it. “C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron,” – by smithing, one become a smith.

Don Foresta
Paris, October 2009