The people behind the ZERO1 Fellowship got one thing right — “public policy is increasingly ill-equipped to manage a society with the kind of boundless creativity that technology like the Internet enables.” What they seem to get wrong is the notion that this is a grant program that serves to directly benefit the arts, or at least one artist.
ZERO1 appears to have started off as one of a bevy of relatively young organizations that serves to get a lot of smart people together in a room from various industries to share ideas and really, ultimately, to network, sometimes around a specific topic or issue of concern. And that’s fine, really. Networking, as much as it makes most of us cringe and want to run to the bar for more alcohol, is not an evil thing, and I can attest to the fact that some portion of the time, you actually end up meeting people who you are glad to have met.
What’s less clear to me is what has led to the vogue for these kinds of organizations in the past ten years or so, and why so much money and time and energy goes into them (though, believe me, I could speculate on this questions for quite awhile). The TED talks are perhaps the most famous, but there’s also Big Think or the idea-based social network Ideas4All. Even large arts and entertainment festivals have started to incorporate this lets-get-some-big-brains-in-a-room-together, with South by Southwest launching an “Interactive” component and the Cannes Film Festival spawning an entirely new festival, the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity or the Aspen Ideas Festival, and on and on.
Most of the organizations like TED or Aspen generate online content through live events that take place in specific, often exclusive locations that can cost a ton of money to get to and stay in. And some of these events come with $1,000+ plus sticker prices on top of the cash it costs to get and stay there, or they require applications or invitations to attend. These organizations tend to have been founded and/or funded by current and former business and technology people, typically really, really wealthy people who have or can quickly hire those with huge amounts of media savvy and influence.
Needless to say, all that money and privilege leaves some big and largely unanswered questions around access, inclusion, politics and turning ideas into marketable products that these organizations and companies try to claim ownership over.
These organizations and events can also tend to be a little bit cult-ish and heavily self-congratulatory. Full disclosure: I was asked to participate in an independently organized TED event held this past June here in New York, which attempted to cover the art world in all its glory and dysfunction. Open critique and unpolished or awkward speakers are generally shunned. Speakers are encouraged to use personal stories and anecdotes to illustrate their points rather than opinion or fact/stat-heavy arguments.
A recent and highly illustrative example of some of the problems that arise when money and ego and desire to impress audiences clash in these environments came about just a couple months ago. In short, a big fancy rich guy got on stage and said he thought the government ought to tax rich people like him so that the middle class could benefit. This speaker had hired a powerful and expensive PR firm to promote his talk and his “big idea.” Except that the TED people decided not to post his talk on their website. A big rich boy fight ensued on the interwebs and in the media, in which they argued over whose brand was bigger and more righteous. None of that really matters or is so important, except that what it led to was the founder of TED, Chris Anderson, saying that the reason they kept the talk off the site was that it was “too political.”
Given that we’re in the run up to a presidential election, you’ve likely heard that phrase, “too political,” a lot. More often than not out of the mouths of people on either side who want to claim that the other side is playing games and trying to manipulate the discussion. But most of us who have had to endure the past couple decades of American politics (at least), understand that it’s just as manipulative to throw out the “too political” trope in the context of a political debate that will directly effect a lot of people’s daily lives. And anyone who has had to do a little studying of politics and history (or experienced it firsthand) would also know that those darn feminists (pesky feminists!) made perhaps the most important political point of the 20th century — the personal is political. So pretty much any idea you stand up on a stage and share is going to have political implications, one way or another.
Which all points to the fact that there might be something a little disingenuous about the mask of good intentions that a lot of these organizations operate under. What Chris Anderson clearly meant by his use of “too political,” if you watch just a handful of videos on his site that directly relate to national or international politics, is that this talk under debate was not the kind of politics he’s interested in and that he’s concerned that it’s a message that some of his audience members (i.e. the people who can pay all that money for tickets and airplane tickets, etc.) are not going to be too keen on hearing. So his motto, “ideas worth spreading,” necessarily means “ideas we’re comfortable spreading and that don’t directly challenge existing power structures or the position of the majority of people who attend our events.”
But that’s the tricky thing with good intentions, right? And one of the bigger issues around charity and aid to those without much power or capital in the world today. These big-brains-in-a-room events are, at least in part, very much a part of the astronomically increasing popularity in the US of “doing good,” specifically making charity and volunteerism a regular part of life. There’s a lot that could be said about all of that and books that have already been written pointing to some of the potential pitfalls of what some have termed the “non-profit industrial complex,” but the point of this essay isn’t to take apart charity. What I want to do here is channel that growing skepticism around the fact that it is often the wealthiest and most powerful people who dictate the terms of the good acts that our society commits and who decide which ideas will underpin them. And it’s absolutely true that sometimes they get it right and great things are accomplished, I’m never going to deny that, but sometimes what I would call boutique charities arise that are often ego-driven and compete with other organizations with less capital or cache which ultimately diminishes resources and ends up with populations in need being very poorly served.
The reason that I brought all that up, including the “too political” statement and the skepticism that is worth maintaining in the face of these “idea” sellers, is that the ZERO1 Fellowship seems to have very mixed motives, and that seems to be a trend in a lot of arts grant programs that I’ve seen in the past few years.
As I mentioned at the outset, ZERO1 is correct in stating that cultural policy isn’t keeping up with society. But within the framework of a fellowship that purports to be about the arts, the issue is less that policy isn’t keeping up with technology and more that current cultural policy has slowly been driving artists out of the game in favor of large, heavily funded institutions and agencies that do a lot of getting people together in rooms, often with highly paid consultants, to talk about how to sell, make use of, or distribute art, but spend almost no money or resources on artists themselves or on generating new, challenging, rigorous artwork. And what’s really bothersome about the ZERO1 Fellowship is that appears to directly mirror those policy problems, even as it seems to want to encourage artists to present challenges to those policies.
Here’s what the fellowship is: they want an artist to “artistically consider a complex issue concerning cultural policy in an information society.” These artists will get $10,000 to do this over the period of six months.
On the surface, for some artists and non-artists, that may sound not too bad, but if you read the details, bells start to go off.
#1 – The organization is being pretty specific in telling you what subject they want the art to focus on. In other words, this feels a little more like a commission or work-for-hire, and it’s a highly technical and really wonky subject — the interface between cultural policy and the internet. I mean there is certainly art that deals with the internet and a tiny slice that directly deals with policy, but it’s hard not to imagine this ending up with a lot of data visualizations filled with bureaucratic language and redacted texts.
I called Joel Slayton, the founder of ZERO1, to ask him some questions about the Fellowship and share a little bit of my skepticism before writing this piece, and he acknowledged that it was a niche subject and that it was impossible to know what the artists would produce. But more than once he talked about ultimately wanting the artists to “translate” the obscurities and technicalities of the interface between policy and the internet for the general public. That, to me, is a big warning sign that this leans much more towards work-for-hire, and in this case, public relations work for the primary interests behind the fellowship (Google), rather than rigorous artwork.
Using artists as cheap work-for-hire is a common theme among many of these large well-intention idea-focused organizations. They want to contribute to solving seemingly intractable problems and they acknowledge that sometimes people within the fields where those problems are happening are a bit too tied to existing ways of thinking, plus they have a general admiration for artists as creative thinkers, so they say, let’s bring in an artist to help us solve our problem. That’s all well and good, the problem is that if you want artists to come up with realizable, positive solutions to real-world problems, it’s better not to ask them to make art about it and to instead treat them as consultants, acknowledging that you are bringing them in to help change your perspective rather than to undertake their own work. For a particularly vexing example of this kind of grant, check out the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Our Town” program.
The reality is that if you ask an artist to come in and make real, rigorous art about a problem, they’re more likely to turn around and critique you, critique the process, make work that is utterly abstract or philosophical, that points out the deep and abiding structural iniquities that have led to the problem in the first place, or that points out larger problems that precede or underpin the problem you’re thinking about, or to jump off into areas seemingly unrelated than they are to draw up a practical and easily executable solution to your problem. Because an artist’s work is generally open-ended, with no predetermined endpoints, and the meat of an artwork is often not understood until the work is near completion.
#2 – Did I mention the whole thing is sponsored by Google? Yes, Google. The company that, among other things, went ahead and scanned every single book it could get its hands on without bothering to ask for permission from the artists and writers who owned the rights to those books or thinking that it maybe ought to offer to send some of the gajillion dollars it makes off that work back to the artists and writers who created it and that they pretty much stole it from.
It’s a little odd to have Google sponsoring a fellowship that claims to be directed at addressing the ways that policy and technology influence cultural production when Google has been locked in years-long battles over the above behavior in the US and France, among other countries.
And that’s kinda just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Google’s forays into culture and its attempts to influence legislation that would give it further control over other people’s ideas and products — do some digging around the current patent wars and you’ll start to get a sense of how all that tech money and friendly hand-shaking at idea festivals starts to have creepy big-time implications for us mere humans. Add on the Citizens United ruling from the US Supreme Court and, even as someone who patently (pun fully intended) refuses to espouse conspiracy theories, I’m starting to get a really creepy feeling that much of what I want to say in the world will either not be allowed on the platforms where I want to say it or subject to copyright claims by some corporate entity the minute I do manage to say it.
I asked Slayton about this seeming conflict and he said that he thought that was precisely the reason why artists should be working with Google: “it’s important that artists are embedded in companies like Google so that they can help shape the future.” But when I asked about whether or not the artists would have to sign non-disclosure agreements and whether or not they would have sole ownership over the work they create he said that “the intellectual property will be negotiated out based on the particular details of each individual fellowship” and he noted that non-disclosure agreements might be necessary depending on what the artists are given access to. Again, warning bells should be sounding for artists at this point. If it wasn’t clear before that this was work-for-hire, it’s should be more apparent that Google is hoping, at least in part, to get something great PR and marketing materials from these artists, as well as some new ideas at no risk and at almost no cost.
I don’t doubt that Google is excited about the idea of having artists on staff, as they love to play up the “unconventional” nature of their working environment, but this feels more likely to be a situation where if an artist did engage in open critique, the company would just buy or contract it away from the artist or replicate it in toothless and catchy advertising campaigns.
#3 – In the examples of projects that the artists might pursue, the fellowship guidelines offer the following suggestions: “how technology policy influences cultural production and artistic experimentation” and “how art can be used as a vehicle for addressing political initiatives, impacting creativity and fostering innovation.” Those are important questions, but they seem more appropriate for policy experts, journalists and scholars to spend six months expounding on, and journalists are actually trained in the job of translating dense material for the general public — that’s kinda their job description. Whereas an artist’s job description is to make great, rigorous art. The whole thinking outside the box thing is great, but in order to really understand the implications of policy, you kinda have to sit there and read it and understand it pretty well in order to accurately digest it for others. And I don’t deny that some artists might have that expertise up their sleeve, but I’ve read a good amount of cultural policy and let’s just say it’s not super conducive to making a person want to create art. All of which, again, leads back to questions of how this grant is actually going to benefit the arts or the participating artist, and if it’s really intended to do so at all.
And #4 – Which is the point that the three previous points all hint at — this fellowship represents the classic form of exploitation of artistic labor that is becoming par for the course among heavily funded institutions and government agencies these days. Let’s break down what this fellowship requires of the successful applicant:
- spend a lot of time and energy crafting an idea and an application that caters to the desires of both ZERO1 and Google (according to Slayton, Google will actively participate in selecting the artists),
- have a significant and impressive artistic resume, with work samples available on the interwebs (may seem trivial, but for artists without the technical skill or money to generate slick websites or videos, this is proving to be a greater and greater barrier these days),
- have “expertise” in cultural and/or technology policy as well as the “information society”,
- be willing to devote a significant portion of your time over the course of six months “to formalize a line of creative research to support the project,”
- realize and/or fabricate your artwork at your own cost or using portions of the fellowship stipend in the span of only six months,
- make yourself available to be “introduced” at the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in Silicon Valley, California on September 12, 2012 (doesn’t indicate whether they’re going to cover your costs for that or if it comes out of your stipend and/or pocket, but safe to assume at least some of the costs are going back to you),
- maintain a real, paying job because ain’t no stipend gonna pay those pesky bills that keep coming every month for the six months you’re doing this work,
- and, back to Joel Slayton’s point, translate dense and complicated policy issues for the general public, i.e. conduct some PR and marketing work.
For all that you get a whopping $10,000. I doubt that I even need to point it out, but it should be painfully obvious that public policy experts and consultants, as well as high-end public relations professionals, can easily make salaries far exceeding $100,000, plus benefits and often perks, or they charge hundreds of dollars per hour in fees. Which, if you were to pro-rate for six months, would come out as a heck of a lot more than $10,000.
Slayton fully acknowledged this disparity in the pay versus the expertise required and the time demands of the project when I spoke with him. He said that this was the organization’s first pass at this kind of grant and they were “starting small in order to scale up in the future.” He also pointed out that their new fellowship in partnership with the software company Adobe pays $100,000. But if you read that set of guidelines, you’ll see that they want an artist to create “an innovative new piece of technology.” And when you consider the intellectual property rights issues mentioned above in the case of the Google grant, and you consider that Adobe is basically asking artists to develop new technology for them that they will go on to profit from, more questions arise around who is actually the real beneficiary in these fellowships.
If ZERO1 wants to position itself as an employment agency, placing tech-minded artists into work-for-hire positions, I have no problem with that at all. In fact, I’m all for it. What’s problematic here for me is that ZERO1, according to Slayton, is seeking to position itself as an arts organization, which means they are siphoning money away from programs that directly benefit the arts and artists as a whole and that prioritizes artists as art-makers rather than public relations or technology professionals.
You may think I’m going a bit overboard in this lengthy critique of ZERO1’s program or that I’m picking on a relatively small organization that’s pushing to try out a new model. The reality is that Slayton and I probably agree on a number of things, particularly around acknowledging the in-depth research and development work that artists engage in while making art. But the thing is, these kind of grants are popping up everywhere. And I’m taking the time to critique this one at length because I want to challenge people like Slayton to be more transparent in building these fellowships (i.e. make it clear that artists are unlikely to have full ownership of the work they create and that they are going to serve in a public relations capacity in at least some of the work) and to ask some serious questions about whether or not this is providing artists with real opportunities to make art instead of temporary employment with major tech firms. And I also want to encourage artists to take these programs to task — to call organizations out when they’re trying to get away with blatant exploitation of artistic labor, to proceed cautiously even when we’re all hungry for funding and opportunity, and to petition government arts agencies that give money to organizations like this to create codes of ethics and standards that prevent corporations or private charities from using arts dollars and the legitimacy of those agencies to boost their own profits and public images while exploiting artists.
Of course, it’s true, as Slayton and I concurred, that any time an artist receives funding there are going to be compromises made or limitations placed on the work that the artists create. These fellowships are a small part of a much larger system. And all an artist needs to do to avoid such conflicts is not apply when they see problematic programs. But the thing is, as with many of those organization like TED that I mentioned at the outset, because of the popularity of these brains-in-a-room programs with a lot of people in power right now, there has been a noticeable shift over the past decade or so toward thinking that artists’ new job is to answer society’s most urgent needs in short periods of time for little to no money. Lately this has led to giving people desperate to cut money in their budgets big ideas like “let’s just get rid of our trained aides in the senior programs and offer the space for free to a bunch of artists who will come in and fingerpaint and play music” or “instead of having actual teachers who understand lesson plans and childhood developmental stages, let’s bring in some theater people without education experience to make plays with the kids about the history those teachers would have been teaching.” This is where what seemed like a good intention turns into something deeply problematic when made manifest in the actual, daily lives of the people the programs are intended to help — the artists are exploited, the people with immediate needs are no longer having those needs met by competent and trained workers, and governments hide behind out-of-the-box thinking when laying waste to programs and services.
And just so that we don’t have to go there in the comments, when it comes to exploitation the issue is not that all artists should be paid but that when an organization with government-controlled labor practices and a paid staff of its own brings in an artist, if they aren’t treating that artist as an employee during the time they are making use of that artist’s labor to further their mission, programmatic goals or profits, paying them appropriately given the skills, expertise and responsibilities required, then they are exploiting that artist.
What I would offer as suggestions to ZERO1 and others who want to provide artists with real opportunity that may have a positive impact on society is that instead of everyone telling artists what to make art about, we empower artists to pursue veins of research of their own devising, that we offer opportunities to artists to actively participate in shaping cultural policy that aren’t politically impotent or driven by corporate funding, that we require practicing artists to serve in active and vote-holding roles on the boards of every arts organization without them having to pay to hold the position, and that we place practicing artists in decision-making roles at arts agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In other words, as with all other aid organizations — the out-of-the-box thinking has to involve empowering the people who the organization serves to play a leading and meaningful role in determining what their actual needs are, how those needs might be met, how money should be allocated. And we should all be pushing to demand fair employment and codes of ethics for all types of laborers, including artists and cultural workers. And I’m sure many of my fellow artists could add about many more suggestions to this abbreviated list.