FALL 2012: V.08 N.02: FOUND – SAMPLED – STOLEN – STRATEGIES OF APPROPRIATION IN NEW MEDIA
Ph.D. candidate with CRUMB, University of Sunderland, United Kingdom.
Founder /Director of or-bits.com.
How can artistic operations that take place on and through web-based platforms be discussed as strategies that might expand on the theory and varied practices of appropriating digital material? Can a common trait, within the ever-increasing array of such operations, be individuated as the catalyst for new modes of appropriating artistic and cultural material?
Without attempting to describe the field of contemporary artistic production online, which is “in a state of hyper growth and permanent transformation,” to borrow Lovink’s apt description,  this paper aims to locate some of the conditions inherent in working with existing web interfaces to produce, display, and distribute contemporary artworks. Through discussing three artistic projects, I will look at how artistic endeavors concerned with grabbing and reprocessing found material and taking over the structural and technical elements of an adopted web interface propose alternative ways of discussing contemporary gestures of appropriation. Projects which suggest that the structural but also social conditions inherent to the adoption of web-based platforms –such as YouTube and Wikipedia –impact both the production and reception of an artwork, making these two elements interwoven features of contemporary artistic production in this field.
The proliferation of the Web, and the wider accessibility and simplification of web-based technology, has generated a socio-cultural scenario in which the digital landscape merges with the everyday, in that living and working in a “media-saturated world”  is now a norm for many rather than a few. This has led to an increasing growth of artistic gestures operating on web-based platforms, many of which do not require a high level of technical expertise, i.e. web coding and platform building; rather, they occur through “confiscating,”  re-arranging, customizing ready-to-use web interfaces, often hijacking their structure and mocking their inner technical workings. At the same time, such gestures operate ‘through’ web-based platforms in that they give life to artworks which are not intrinsically dependent on the interface adopted for their future existence or distribution and reception; rather, they often disengage with the interface to take up other forms and formats, from a publication in a bookshop, to a radio show. Within this cultural environment I will attempt to discuss the changing conditions of appropriation gesture intrinsic to, and offered by, contemporary artistic production online.
APPROPRIATION GESTURES: REMIXING / DISPERSING / EXTERNALIZING
Two texts are key sources for my analysis, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction (2002) and Curt Cloninger’s “Commodify Your Consumption” (2009), in that they have almost simultaneously but somewhat tangentially discussed appropriation gestures; the latter, from a more new-media-aware perspective, acting as a response to the former, with a more fine-art-oriented approach.
A decade ago the contemporary art world, namely in the person of curator Nicholas Bourriaud, theorized the figure of the (fine art) artist as “DJ or programmer,”  as an approach to production arising from the socio-cultural scenario of the 1990s; the scenario of “cultural chaos” generated by “the appearance of the Net” which led to the emergence of “an ever increasing number of artworks created on the basis of preexisting works.” This approach, often framed within theories of Postproduction, saw the appropriation of existing artistic material and its reconfiguration, by means of remixing and editing via re-contextualization, as central to the production of artworks, and their deriving aesthetics. Within this critical framework, the work of artists such as Pierre Huyghe, Douglas Gordon and Rirkrit Tiravanija were discussed as propeller of “a new culture of the use of forms;” a culture of “constant activity of signs based on a collective idea: sharing” which “favored the construction of lived situations over fabrications of works.” Such artworks ––in the wake of the proceeding gestures of “production of readymade”– touch upon issues that Bourriaud relates to the appearance of the Net. Some of these issues are: collective reconfiguration of mainstream narrative models in the instance of Huyghe’s casting session Multiple Scenarios (1996); creation of semi-public spaces activated by the audience and based on cooperation and sharing in the instance of Tiravanija’s kitchen Untitled (One Revolution Per Minute) (1996); production of “time readymades” generated from the re-arrangement of Hollywood film fragments in the instance of Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. Within this, practices of consumption of preexisting artistic and cultural material started to be seen as intrinsic to the act of production, and such artists began to be labeled as DJs (remixing already existing artworks), programmers (reconfiguring appropriated material into situations or “precarious structure,” physically and conceptually), “semionauts” (“producing pathways through signs”).
That said, the way in which Bourriaud’s theories of production have discussed appropriation in relation to the “Net” seems rather metaphorical. There is no specific focus on the workings of the Web as a site of production, display, and distribution; instead the Web is used as an allegory to indicate the “cultural chaos” in which artists operating in the 1990s found themselves in (involuntarily) and to pinpoint the possible new formal aesthetics deriving from this. Thus, “the use of [pre-existing artistic] forms,” the tendency to create open, often participatory, (gallery-friendly) artworks –“precarious structures”– seems to be what is at stake, showing little consideration for how the development of web technology might have directly and practically impacted the making of a work.
Issues inherent to web distribution and contemporary art production in connection to appropriation have been instead explored by several artists, such as Seth Price with his essay “Dispersion” (2002).  What Price proposed was to understand the Web as a “distributive medium” in other words as the contemporary mechanism facilitating the acts of copying, editing, pasting, and re-arranging. His work puts forward the necessity to explore the possibilities inherent in digital technology beyond the mere issue of re-arranging the abundance of material already in circulation, to instead focus on the technical framework as much as the conceptual one. Price offers to look at appropriation through issues concerning distribution as an element inherent to the production of a work, thus pointing at the channel, the interface and its possible artistic usages. He put forward a merging of low and high references, the vernacular and the standard –in the wake of Marcel Broodthaers’s Musèe d’Art Moderne (1968-1975)– helping to fill in the void between fine art and new media theories which texts like “Postproduction” generated. But in doing so, a new term for describing appropriation gestures was introduced within the fine art world, dispersion, suggesting new artistic roles which add on previous ones: the distributor, the copyist, the editor.
Cloninger’s essay “Commodify Your Consumption” (2009)  represents instead an attempt –even if circumscribed to practices concerned with contemporary modes of web surfing–to understand appropriation in relation to the structure and inner technical workings of such display spaces and channels of distribution. He achieves this through unraveling the relationship between consumption and production focusing on action, enactment and re-enactment, or I might say through looking at the “social formation”  of the phenomenon of web surfing. He discusses the “act of externalizing processes,” such as processes of dispersal and contextualization of found cultural material –“the corporate detritus,” “the web junk”– and “what is enacted” on, in and through them. These processes are defined as those of “tactical surfing” and are inherent to the work of artists who have been operating through surf clubs, the workings of which have been clearly described by Marcin Ramocki as artistic practices of “group blogging” for which “a piece of information including texts, various media, and hyperlinks [is] published on the internet and available as RSS feed to the general public.”  The artist here becomes a “prosumer” in that consumption and production are strictly interwoven in Cloninger’s analysis, but she also becomes a “framework builder,” an “active agent,” who generates works based on appropriating low and high cultural material structurally (by exploiting the blog interface) and conceptually (by playing with its implicit meaning and commercial/networking value). Ultimately, the artist is an “externalizer” who shows his surfing path through already existing material and enables others to re-enact or hijack it.
APPROPRIATION STRATEGIES ON THE WEB: CONFISCATING / RE-ARRANGING / CUSTOMIZING PLATFORMS
Although Cloninger’s theories touch upon activities of organizing material and devising structural elements that relate to the adopted interface of surf clubs –often the blog– and also introduces a reflection on the level of “technical engagement” in the production of artworks, this is not the primary focus of his essay.
Through the examples below I will attempt to highlight how strategies of confiscating, re-arranging and customizing ready-to-use web interfaces might occur as a reflection on the distributive properties of the adopted platform, and thus in relation to the way in which content is organized accordingly, the organizational structure.
For this analysis I have adopted Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham’s perspective, which is that of looking at the “behavior of the artworks” when analyzing new media works,  focusing on the relationship they might hold with the context, the display space, as well as the viewer. In their suggestion to look at the “space of art’s dissemination,” they hold as a starting point that “for Internet-art the system that is used in the production of the art –the web– is the same that is used for its distribution.” Alongside this, I have also employed Olga Goriunova’s perspective of “organizational aesthetics,” according to which online artistic platforms should be analyzed in respect of their organization, which in turn entails looking at the notion of “arrangement” as a “series of structural devices, whether a taxonomy (list of categories), or associational classification (keywords), […] files, […] constellation of contributions.”  The examples of platform appropriation below can be looked at as interfaces generated by a series of structural tensions within a given spatio-temporal environment. Tensions which determine, but are also determined by, the way in which their content is arranged, the reciprocal relationship with the artwork on display and the environment, and the behavioral patterns generated between the interface and the viewer, the ultimate consumer/receiver of cultural and artistic content.
NoTube Contest (2009-) is a project devised by the Italian artists group IOCOSE.  As the name itself suggests this project is not an artwork as such but a competition now in its 3rd edition, structured, both technically and conceptually, around the video-sharing platform YouTube. The NoTube Contest is presented and distributed via a website which holds a specific URL. The structure of the project is rather simple: entering the contest is open to everyone; participants are invited to browse YouTube and select the most valueless video through its endless archive. “The winner of the NoTube Contest is the participant who manages to find the most valueless video on YouTube. A good NoTube video cannot be summarized, does not offer any keywords for searching it, is not linked by any other web site, has not been discussed and cannot be discussed. Perfectly empty, unable to communicate, it is the ultimate video to be shared.”  During the contest the submitted videos are embedded on the notubecontest.com website straight from YouTube and from there they can be shared, liked and tweeted before a selected jury votes on the winner. However, and this is the trick of the project, the more a video is voted for, the more its score and ranking goes down. IOCOSE’s project questions the act of sharing–“a buzzword of Web 2.0” in the artists’ words– by playing with its same rules; to achieve this the artists not only conceptually exploit the workings of the ubiquitous video sharing platform, they also adopt its inner structure, its distributive properties.
How does NoTube Contest deal with appropriation of web-interfaces? By appropriating the interface of YouTube not directly as a display structure, but as the mechanism according to which the whole project is built, takes place, is distributed and continues to exist even at the end of the contest, in the original source material submitted which is still archived on YouTube. Also to be noted is that the winner of the 3rd edition of the contest was awarded a prize: to be the sole proprietor of IOCOSE’s “1-view video” (2011), “a 24 hours long celebration streamed and recorded for the winner only;” an artwork which becomes an extension of the contest, taking up a different format and triggering another mode of audience reception.
The artistic/curatorial project curatingYouTube,  initiated by Robert Sakrowski in 2007 instead employs the YouTube interface in a more straightforward modality. According to Sakrowski this project “stands for the exploration of Web 2.0 phenomena through adopting the online video platform YouTube;” it is an approach to “curating as a technique of action.”  The online moving-image exhibitions of curatingYouTube, which are either curated by Sakrowski or invited artists/curators, often investigate the possibilities inherent in employing the “gridr” –the grid tool, the “comparative view” tool– both as a mode of curation and artistic operation.
The “gridr”  allows a user to rearrange found videos as a 2×2, 3×3 or 4×4 video grid to create both shows and artistic works that rely on curatorial methods of choosing, rearranging and representing. The artworks presented as part of each online exhibition are not displayed within a “curated interface;” rather, they exist on their own and could be transferred (or embedded) in any other online platform without losing their characteristics, nor the artists’ original intentions. This is because each of these moving-image works is made of a combination of selected videos taken from an already existing display and distribution platform, YouTube. The artwork relies on the “gridr” to be assembled, and once the assemblage is generated it becomes an online moving-image installation on a web page, which requires the viewer to singularly click on each of the videos on show to watch it. The asynchrony generated by this set of actions is symptomatic of the freedom given to the viewer in creating a relationship with the work. The viewer has space to experiment with time, for example to create pauses and simultaneous playing and to decide on the order in which videos will be played. Thus, audiences also become producers, in that the artwork itself operates only as a temporal arrangement of content. curatingYouTube functions as a thematic aggregator of content already existing somewhere else and in constant circulation, and because of this it has also used its “grid method” to present exhibitions in other formats such as a one-hour radio show on FM 88.vier in Berlin (2012).
Another project that uses a web platform along with strategies of appropriation is Public Access by David Horvitz. In 2010, the artist took pictures of himself while driving, south to north, along the California Coast. He took about 50 pictures of the view of the Pacific Ocean, in which he was removed or he was present as a viewer, in the “margins” , usually giving his back to the camera. He then uploaded the picture on the Wikipedia pages of such locations, replacing the existing images with those he took during his journey. There was a reaction within the Wikipedia community whose members began to take down his images or crop them according to what they thought were good and ethical standards.
After this, Public Access became a .PDF publication, “a way of packaging something, and putting that package into movement, into a coherent distributable form,” representing “different forms of manifestations over time,” which resembles the distributive characteristics of mutability and malleability of the material circulating via web-services. Horvitz keeps on finding images of himself in circulation, images that have been edited, cropped, downloaded and re-uploaded. He continues to upload new images onto Wikipedia, waiting to see what might happen to them and how they might come back to him, perhaps to be re-used within other projects. “I found a re-circulated image of mine. However, the question becomes, is it actually mine? […] But it shows the second life of my image after the project. It is in circulation. But this other idea, is it mine? It is kind of interesting, because it doesn’t matter if it’s mine or not. And that is the point.” A question might be then, how does Horvitz appropriate a ready-to-use web interface? The “open editable model” of Wikipedia, the fact that it is written collaboratively by volunteers and often anonymously, has been used by the artist not only as a conceptual strategy for the production of an artwork, but practically by using the platform itself for the dispersal of his works to instigate an ongoing process, as an open-ended project that has numerous manifestations, from studio editions to publications and workshops.
In these examples, distribution, understood as the channel employed by the artists and the interface of the work, its ‘techno-structural’ organization of material rather than just conceptual organization, seems to have a direct effect on the work’s form, content and context, as well as on the artistic gesture itself.  These appropriation gestures appear to be less driven by the individual artist and the people participating in it, and more by the structure of the work, putting emphasis on artistic strategy. Within these practices, which are examples of “structural and organizational appropriations” because they reflect on the distributive properties of the grabbed interface, the loss of hierarchical systems of production inherent to appropriation does not only concern the originality of the source material. Here the consumption of cultural material, as it propagates with and is changed by the spread of digital technology, becomes intrinsic to the act of production, affecting its modalities that increasingly resemble curatorial operations. This seems to put into question the separation of the many definitions of appropriation gestures arising over the past 10 years: from the DJ, programmer and semionaut, to the active agent, prosumer and externaliser, through the distributor, copyist and editor.
A moment from art history could serve as a conclusion of this paper. In 1980 Craig Owens discussed allegory in relation to strategies of appropriation of found images in artistic practices of his time. Owens linked the concept of “appropriated imagery” to that of site by referring to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), stating that “work and site […] stand in a dialectical relationship” because the artist has “engaged in the reading of the site, in terms of its topographical specifics [the structure, the interface, perhaps] but also of its psychological resonance [the relationship with the context, the viewer, in terms of its inner nature, perhaps].” 
This seems to put forward the cruciality to discuss contemporary artistic production online and the appropriation of web-based interfaces– be they used as they are or grabbed and customized– in relation to the notion of site, and perhaps non-site, and its “dialectical” and malleable relationship with the work, but also with the artist’s original intention and viewer and behavioral patterns. And here there might be something to learn from the practices of Robert Smithson, Marcel Broodthaers, Lucy Lippard, and their ilk.
1. Geert Lovink, Zero Comments (New York: Routledge, 2008).
2. Charlie Gere, Digital Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2002).
3. Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October, no. 13 (1980): 59–80.
4. Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), as for all the following citations.
5. Seth Price, “Dispersion,” Distributed History, 2002, http://www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion08.pdf(accessed October 2, 2012).
6. Curt Cloninger, “Commodify Your Consumption: Tactical Surfing / Wakes of Resistance,” Personal Website, 2009, http://lab404.com/articles/commodify_your_consumption.pdf (accessed October 2, 2012).
7. Social formation is a term used by Althusser and Balibar, i.e. the “totality of instances articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production.” Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital (1970) (London: Verso, 2009).
8. Marcin Ramocki, “Surfing Clubs: organized notes and comments,” Personal Website, 2008,http://ramocki.net/surfing-clubs.html (accessed August 29, 2012).
9. Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham, Rethinking Curating (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).
10. Olga Goriunova, Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet (London: Routledge, 2011).
11. NoTube Contest (IOCOSE) http://notubecontest.com (accessed October 2, 2012).
12. From a private conversation with the artists.
13. curatingYouTube (Robert Sakrowski) http://www.curatingyoutube.net (accessed October 2, 2012).
14. From curatingyoutube.net and Sakrowski’s presentation at CRUMB Workshop: Distribution and Dissemination After New Media, AV Festival, Newcastle upon Tyne, 05/03/12.
15. Gridr (Robert Sakrowski) http://gridr.curatingyoutube.net (accessed October 2, 2012).
16. From a private conversation with the artist, as for all the following citations.
17. I have not included an example of surf club strategies, instead see Ramocki’s essay for a detailed analysis.
18. Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.”
Marialaura Ghidini is an independent curator, researcher and writer based in the UK. She is a Ph.D. candidate with the Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss, http://www.crumbweb.org at the University of Sunderland and founder director of the web-based curatorial platform or-bits.com, http://www.or-bits.com