Daniel, S. (2011). Collaborative Systems: Redefining Public Art. In _Context Providers_, M. Lovejoy, C. Paul, and V. Vesna, eds. Bristol and Chicago: intellect.

Social justice advocate-artist, Sharon Daniel creates and utilizes information and communication technologies. She is a Professor of Film and Digital Media and Chair of the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she teaches digital media theory and practice. She produces “new media documentaries,” online archives and interfaces that make available the stories of the underserved across social, cultural, and economic lines.

Context provision is a political public art practice. In it, artists avoid representation and instead provide tools for the articulation of self.

“Theorizing and storytelling, together, constitute an intervention and a refusal to accept reality as it is right now. Borders are crossed in this intervention–when, through both speaking and hearing, we become and disappear” (83).

Daniel holds that John Cage was the first context provider. “4’33″‘ and similar compositions “were open systems in which the audience/participant, or subject, was constructed as interpreter, author, and actant in the system” (61). Now there were no differences between musical sounds and environmental ones–art and life were one. His work embodied both Raymond Williams’ (1998) alternative and oppositional approaches in contradistinction to dominant culture. The former exists and functions within the prevailing scheme and the latter comprises a genuine disruption. It is possible, Daniel insists, to make socially engaged art that is not provocative or alienating.

To that end, she upholds a few key principles. First, Stephen Willats’ ethnographic “behavioral art,” which borrows from anthropological practice, without adopting its paternalistic manner. It relocates “responsibility for the production, analysis, synthesis, and representation of context” (65) away from the “artist/ethnographer” and to the “participant/interlocutor. Willats’ (2000) Art and Social Function described his “West London Social Resource Project,” “Edinburgh Social Model Construction Project,” and the “Meta Filter.” In the West London project, Willats went door to door, campaigning for participants a “neighborhood specific” (66) work. For it he created workbooks, questionnaires, etc. to determine social and physical “coding structures” (67). This book startles Daniel for its “seeming contradiction between the social-scientific attitude (method and tone) and the highly personal quality of the drawings and writing on the reproduced working pages” (69).

Second, the feminist approach. Per Justine Cassell (1998), the feminist software designer’s objective is to arm the user with the tools for self-expression through storytelling, self-construction, and emphasis on every day.  Mapping is at the heart of systems and interface intersubjective design. It can be either phrase-based, which rewards the user no matter the level of interaction, thus signifying the strong authorship of the artist, or it can be letter- (or word-) based. Here the user must participate actively, and when the user can contribute, the system becomes an authentically collaborative system.

In complex, self-evolving systems, the cellular automata, there is no binary between autonomy and community. The system is both one and all systems together, creating a third position, the “system_subject” (79), whose status as individual or network is contingent upon the system narrative. Again, there is no single answer.

“For the system_subject, narrative is absolutely particular…. Biography is reinvented in the emergent system_subject as both individual and communal, narratively, and historically contingent” (80).



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Filed under Annotated Bibliographies, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields


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