Listening to Firefox

The “Listening to Firefox” discussion event on Sunday 15th of May aimed to open up a space for new discussions specifically related to social, political and economic aspects of creative practices which embrace and include technology – all under the banner “Wider Implications of Software Culture.” It was also an experiment in hosting a different kind of dialogue across the various groups and practices which meet at MadLab in Manchester.

This inaugural Listening to Firefox event was subtitled “Open Source vs. The Big Society” and was introduced and co-chaired by myself and artist/consultant Simon Poulter. Simon highlighted specific ideas which are emerging out of Prime Minister David Cameron’s “ConDem” government which seek to harness and appropriate volunteer activity as examples of being “a good citizen” and servant of the state. Since the majority of activity within MadLab operates on a voluntary basis and, more broadly “tech culture” has its own established economy of unpaid moderators, admins, bloggers, organisors etc. this comparison and contention fed nicely into our five guest presentations which sought to share an aspect of an individuals own practice or approach using a specific project as an example.

Here’s a brief run through of those with a couple of sentences about each:

Stephen Fortune entitled his presentation Data and Reality and shared with us an idea he has been working with around the seeming “objective reality” afforded to forms of data we are being increasingly presented with as evidence. He likened the unquestioned faith in patterns recognised within data to a whole lineage of cultural practices which could be described as “divination”. Stephen put forward as a counter example his own work using webcams and computer vision image analysis to search for hidden patterns within tealeaves! (It was Stephens previous work, applying high powered magnets to his computer harddrive in order to tune in to its frequency which coined the phrase “Listening to Firefox” which we have used for the event’s title.)

Second up was Markus Soukup, an artist, whose most recent exhibition is on display as one of the artists shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize. Markus showed us a slide of one of his works – “relicts / 2011″ – where single seemingly related words are arranged as an array of black photographic blocks. The words are seemingly inter-connected but the piece stops short of linking them and we are left wondering what the overall system for this arrangement might be. Examples include the juxtaposition of “private”, “privacy” and “privatization” which linguistically share a stem of syntax but in a practical understanding, out in the world, do not relate to one another in a simple systematic way.

I then followed with a quick update on the progress of something I became involved with at the beginning of the year – the Open Source Swan Pedalo. We had a technology crash at this point – but I was basically able to describe the way in which a group of individuals based predominantly in Liverpool are attempting to apply principles from Open Source software culture to a very real (and heavy) physical object. Where for instance a piece of software might be stored on a server or downloaded by users, the Swan Pedalo must instead be physically hosted by somebody and it requires 8 people and a van to move it from place to place. The functioning of this Swan Pedalo as a stress-test for community involvement and also as a vessel for the development of ideas within a very open framework were discussed.

Nick Holloway then shared with us his brilliant UK Libraries Cuts Map. Nick was the only presenter who had not previously attended the Metal/DEC exploratory Lab in February and I think he brought something very fresh and immediately relevant to the discussion. With a background as a journalist, Nick had begun investigating the true extent of library closures and when the sheer scale and intermittently distributed nature of the available information became apparent he offered to build a map using Google’s API to give a more accessible picture of what was happening. The map clearly shows which libraries have been forced to close, which are threatened by closure and which have been saved. This presentation, more than any other, seemed to provoke a serious debate about ownership, access and regulation of information, data, tools – an issue which most of the people around the table had an opinion on!

The final presentation, from Caroline Heron, which had a working title of “Precarious Labour” served to bring together underlying concerns regarding our apparently “always on” culture, with “the digital” acting to totally break down any distance between “work” and “relaxation” (or “leisure time”.) Caroline shared her own very personal experience of working within the organisation Mute who had recently had a 100% cut in their Arts Council funding – meaning that her own position as an employee was under threat. A discussions from the previous days CODA meeting, and artist Tapio Makela’s warning regarding the threat posed by “invisibility” hybrid practices came to the fore.

The discussion was then opened up around forms of organisation within “digital” practices – compared with approaches within open source culture where there is often a very clear “need” basis for projects to be undertaken. The relationship between our mutual creative activities and forms of economy (and the potential for both opportunity and exploitation) seemed to be a very ripe and current area for debate.
In the final summing up of Listening to Firefox (which ran for a total of 2 hours) various useful points were identified:

  • sharing of approaches, practices and methodologies was valuable – and this connected a general attitude around “skill sharing” to “experience sharing”
  • it was identified as a really positive thing all round to meet with other people operating within different voluntary groups and opening up the event to public attendance worked
  • multiple presentations, and openness of remit was a good thing and allowed points of conflict and things which were not obviously connected to be considered as thematically related

It was an obvious decision to host this event within MadLab (despite my own base being in Liverpool) since, as Hwa Young (one of MadLabs unsalaried directors) explained at the beginning, “MadLab operates as a kind of neutral space.”

Mad Lab is a hub at which many different practices meet individually in the form of weekly or monthly groups with a plethora of meet-ups focussed around tech culture such as operating systems, programming languages, content management, free and open source software etc. This has gradually expanded towards what would traditionally be considered less technical and more creative activity such as Science Fiction writing groups and reading groups. And, a notion of “hacking” culture has broadened out even further to include “fashion hacking” and DIY biology.

The above activity represents one strand of the overall activity at MadLab, which has also grown to include also playing a role in the cultural event calendar partnering with various festivals and institutions (Listening to Firefox was recognised as a Future Everything festival partner event) and also expanding into a more traditionally formalised lifelong-learning remit with the “Omniversity” education training courses.

The attendance to the event was good – 18 people – so it will be interesting to see whether this kind of format could be taken forward (or connected with other groups and events already operating.) An indicator of how well things went was that everyone retired to the pub at the end for a well earned Sunday afternoon pint!

(event photographs by Hwa Young)

Post by John O’Shea

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