In between appropriation and remediation: My experience facilitating the Europeana- Popcorn webmaker workshop at FutureEverything

11th Apr 2013

The recurrent point of my internal conversations: Appropriation. The one constant in almost all the proposals: Remediation. Is the future of everything the reuse of the present and the retaking of the past in something - sleeker shiny ethereal sterilised hipsterly - digital?

The summit last weekend was extremely informative, socially effervescent – the perfect incubator for strategic connections. Above all, it was massively entertaining, especially out of the conference rooms and (a bit too much) in going up and down the elevators, but basically very, very inspiring.

I am afraid I must make a confession. Maybe it is a strange symptom of an anomaly inherent in the condition of a PhD student, maybe one of the first manifestations of my obsessive researcher behaviour or perhaps just the absolutely normal phenomenon of experiencing a conference (hoping for the last in honour of my own mental health), but I have to admit I was in constant conversations with myself (mental conversations of course!). Me with my own and persistently transforming concept of Digital Public Space, my topic of research and my own thoughts against what I was listening to at the conference… all of my own internal voices continuously answering back to what I was listening, sometimes friendly discussing the topics, others in a rather fierce debate. All the voices contrasting at all times, what I have been thinking for the last six months about DPS with what the experts had to say at FutureEverything.

The recurrent point of my internal conversations: Appropriation. The one constant in almost all the proposals: Remediation.

Is the future of everything the reuse of the present and the retaking of the past in something - sleeker shiny ethereal sterilised hipsterly - digital?

The obstacle for the recurring point and the constant proposal: ethical and authorship rights.

Does this future belong to us or to the past authors, owners, artists, organisations, etc.? Does it belong to the past in general? Or is a future that depends on future radical changes in ethical protocols of concepts of authorship and ownership?

My whole soliloquy was summed up in just one sentence: “it is the personal story, the comment added, that made the archive interesting”. This comment was made by Steven Crossan in the context of the New Interfaces for Culture, referring to the Google Culture Institute’s development of its interface. But the spirit of that sentence was repeated in one form or another during the summit: “we need a curator in the immensity of these archives”. From Google to Europeana, from the different artists that are thinking about personal archives’ uses and connectivity to the directions of peoples’ talks; from Vimeo to Kickstart and all the fathers and mothers and members of the family and even the distant relatives of the Digital Public Space. 

I had the chance to be at the blue room, from early Friday morning and throughout the day, representing the CX PhD cohort that together with Bill Thompson facilitated the mash-up workshop. In the great – and a bit random and surprising - opportunity to do an improvised introduction to the workshop – and under the gaze of big cameras’ lenses - I felt like the double daughter of two big monster institutions. In the context of an oversized room, the lack of coffee and informality and the many important names, I also felt like the living proof and representation of that beautiful utopia that the recently born DPS appears to be.

Suddenly the big and yellow CX banners I had behind me made me feel responsible for the DPS’ concepts of connection, access, exchange and participation, all grounded in what we might broadly call ‘digital culture’. Noble ideas were all grown in the ground and under the influences of the FE thinking of future, everything, media, archives and data visualisation. Worryingly, as I spoke in a loud voice into the microphone explaining my simple role as coordinator of the activity and the Creative Exchange, the voices in my head were shouting to each other, though not as gallantly; ideas like, appropriation, subversion, everyday over heritage and individuals over institutions.

The workshop, as amazingly announced in the conference brochure, offered the opportunity to move from “use the web to make the web”. With licence from Europeana to use its historical files and with the help of Mozilla’s popcorn web-maker, a tool for rapid prototyping in video format, the workshop initiative was to facilitate people’s remixes of different digital information. These converged into a product that is a reinterpretation, personally curated and an exploration of the possible uses of the archive content into a mash-up using very personal ideas and tastes. The discussion in my head declared again – this time in capitals and highlighted in green neon: APPROPRIATION!

The concurrence was incredible, the participation very engaged and the products a mixture of interesting, fun and experimental that well represented the variety of contributors we had. While going from individual to individual helping them (or discovering with them), I had to insist each time that the end product would be like a collage, patchwork, mash up, remix; it was not a video editor for a cinematic masterpiece. And the prattles in my head took their respective megaphones to yell in unison: REMEDIATION!!!

During the day at the workshop, the same questions kept rising: ‘can we use any of the Europeana’s videos? Can we mess around with any of their files? I repeatedly offered the same dichotomous answer: ‘well yes and no’. From my mother Europeana’s side I said “well… no, we just choose from the variety of the 14 videos that are in Europeana’s YouTube channel and from the sound and image files that are in the archive for public domain’ (which is only about 27% of the total archive, according to Jill Cousins in her talk ‘Bringing Archives together’). However my own and particularly subversive and disobedient side said something different. Perhaps it came from the spirit of the black sheep of the family, or maybe just inherited by my father Mozilla side. It was tempted to answer ‘yes! Go ahead! We potentially could use anything on the web from YouTube to Soundcloud, with permission or not’. That answer, however, was not necessary. Gladly, the rest of the workshop inherited the same pirate spirit, or maybe the popcorn tool is an invitation for it.

I didn’t just have one set of parents. In fact I had a double father and a double mother, the others being FutureEverything and the Creative Exchange. They have always inculcated the interest in studying the Digital Public Space with passion and fervour, but haven’t educated me yet - maybe because of their recently born state - on the ethical decisions about authorship rights. Maybe this is because even for them and their institutional character, it is a problem still to be solved. I received, from the panel of my head, a thousand and one spam emails at once with just one sentence: “the problem of authorship rights and ethical approval”.

I would love to sort the dilemma with the solution that artist Michelle Teran gave to a similar question asked by a member of the public after her talk: ‘the issue of artist’s appropriation is a very long and settled method in Art History”. The discussion in my head was clapping happily inciting the ovation of the public.

In spite of the amazing experience I had at FutureEverything, I think a CX workshop of that kind would benefit from being conducted in a more hacking type space. Participants would exchange creativity better in a realm where culture is not written with a capital C, and is not just understood as the narrow notions of heritage, museum archives, or extremely good HD quality pictures of the collections that museums may have, but a concept of culture that is more about everyday life, the daily stories, the anonymous, individual notes, the uses and reuses, the futures, everybody’s futures and not just the future of a very old way to produce and reproduce.