What if the inspiration for fairer creative economies are found beyond speculative technologies?

If you missed Episode 1 of The Para-Real: Finding the Future in Unexpected Places, with Joe Hunting, we’ve just posted an on-demand archive of our screening of his film, A Wider Screen, and his discussion with Cade Diehm.

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As our first livestream season gets underway, we’re publishing guest Cables from our friends on topics close to our work. Philosopher and researcher Lucy Rose Sollitt writes about her search for fairer art economies, and whether online communities outside of mainstream art have more to teach us than the crypto-fuelled speculation of the last months.

By now it's irrefutable that Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have gone mainstream. The art market has been quick to cash in on the crypto-fuelled speculation, with galleries, auction houses, big name and digital artists alike all auctioning artworks minted against this digital asset technology. At the same time, the numbers of artists actually making money look small, and marketplaces often don’t act in artists’ interests, and NFTs often do not have sufficient legal and technical underpinnings to protect artists. NFTs are a contentious technology that clearly illustrate a key theme in my work; the need for new economies and value around art. In the race to absorb the latest money-spinning trend, the economic patterns of a hyper financialised art market and internet, have been transposed in the NFT frenzy. A core issue inherent in the burgeoning online market is whether it can truly enable democratisation. A second is whether compelling, meaningful art is possible without coming second to either financialisation or populism. Beyond the crypto-fuelled optimism, the dominant extractive logics remain the same, and they benefit the few rather than the many.

So what if we look elsewhere? In the Redefining Value in the Art Market talks series held in October 2020, I attempted to do just that. The series platformed members of vibrant cultures taking place outside and/or on the fringes of the art world whose experiences can help guide the search for possible alternatives online and off. I’m drawn to models of value creation that foreground the art while intentionally building out others across communities of interest, and in doing so enable a wider range of artists, fans and others to share in the value that they create. To me, this has to be a component of moving towards fairer art economies. I’m also fascinated by how these approaches - blockchain facilitated or otherwise - can operate in the flawed yet deep potential of the spatialised internet, or “metaverse”, in which art and other creations operate ever more fluidly between the physical world and virtual simulation.

Danielle Braithewaite Shirely, Helen Knowles and Cade Diehm, shared their own explorations of these kinds of models in the Expanded Formats talk as part of the Redefining Value series. Danielle’s virtual worlds, such as Black Trans Archive, collaboratively reclaim online space for black trans people, and draw inspiration from production and creation models seen in independent games to ask how marginalised communities can “build one another out”. “Trickle Down: A New Vertical Sovereignty”, an artwork by Helen used blockchain to redistribute wealth and value across everyone involved in the creation of the artwork. I’ve been part of exploring similar approaches for managing the Birth Rites art collection which Helen founded. Cade shared his research into Furry communities, whose global patronage subculture, and creative infrastructures have proved more resilient amidst the Covid crisis.

The expertise shared in the Expanded Formats series together points to possibilities for more distributed, and relevant future art economies - ones in which sales and income models for creation are highly diversified and participation extends beyond a privileged few to a wider range of artists and their communities. I hope such economies will not only be fairer but also will enable art to reassert its sacred and transformative power as opposed to simply being a commodity. 

The Para-Real series picks up on this direction of travel, tracing emergent threads, complex economies of value at the bridge between online and real. Applying and evolving these kinds of models is complex and raises important questions which do have simple answers, such as the role of intermediaries in art. Too often the complexity and nuance of these questions is lost in the rush to embrace the latest trend. Yet ironically, it's often in the complexity that the power and beauty of art lies.

Lucy Rose Sollitt is a London-based philosopher. Her research spans art, emerging technologies and economies, all underpinned by a deep consideration of art as felt knowledge. Some of Lucy’s related research includes:

We Are Here Because of Those Who Were Not: Claiming the Para-Real with Artist Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley

The Para-Real mirrors real world politics into digital spaces, amplified by hardware costs, supply chain injustices and connectivity access. Though celebrated as a refuge for the weird, the 1990s digital culture overwhelmingly favoured a demographic with the material means and luxury of time to immerse themselves in it. The result of this lack of access is a homogenous digital culture with narrow definitions of identity and aesthetics. Through reflection on her trailblazing work and experiences as an artist, Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley details the shortfalls of today's digital identity systems, the missing voices from early digital culture, and the unexpected outcomes when game engines, creative tools and hardware are liberated from class barriers and become universally accessible.

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