Disrecognized Space

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Convergence: the new folk arts

Convergence, due to its democratizing effect and replacement of one-to-many media sources with many-to-many, has changed media consumption from an essentially passive activity to one that is active and involved in a manner akin to that used to produce folk arts in preindustrial societies, where everyone has access to the ability to use the cultural materials in their own way should they choose to.In 1999 the internet was defined (Microsoft, 1999, p 115) as a place where “you can receive information”. Convergence, and the participatory culture it has created, has allowed for new distribution methods that circumvent the corporate controls of preexisting media where users not only now ‘receive’ but also ‘transmit’ information. Traditionally, media was produced and distributed by a few for the consumption of the many (one to many distribution). The distributed nature of the internet, as well as the ready availability of cheap or free software and hardware tools, has allowed this model to change to a many to many distribution format (without necessarily, at this stage, eliminating the old model) (Jenkins, 2009b). Convergence, as defined by Jenkins (2006) is primarily a social phenomena: participation is its main feature, technology only its enabling aspect.

In some ways this ‘new’ model is similar to the distributive and cultural methods found in folk arts. Forrest (2006, p 141) observes that ‘folklore’ might be interpreted in one sense as “the culture of the common people” and the new media and convergence are certainly products of the community if not the commanality.

Skjelbred (1991) asks what is folklore and what is its purpose? She sees folklore as a multimedia form (p 4) and concludes by stating that folklore is a fundamental part of what makes us human (p 10). It allows us to define our identity, and to create works without necessarily being original. “Through folklore, then, we express who we are to others, and we confirm who we are to ourselves.” In just the same way, participatory culture through the medium of the internet enables us to create our new folklore, the purpose of which is not often to create ‘high art’ but to express ourselves, and to communicate and identify with a community. Kõiva and Vesik (2009, p 100) also note the universal creative impulse in humanity, and how this is used to create and link to community.

Roberts (2004, p 139) points out that the ‘narrative paradigm’ of folklore is democratic, even actively anti-elitist. She states that all people are storytellers, and that folklore looks rather to ‘tradition (narrative) (…) and performance” as essential characteristics. She also notes that folklore performers are often drawn from marginalized groups.

Benkler (2006 p 275) notes that new media makes it possible for everyone to become an active participant in their culture, circumventing the top down corporate model (without needing to even address it directly) through the use of readily available software tools, making culture ‘transparent’. This participatory culture follows a “folk-culture model and (is) inhabited actively” – the participants become producers and consumers via the process of engaging with cultural definitions and forms. This similarity to earlier folk cultures has also been noted by other commentators, such as Gabler (2010) and Jenkins (2009b) who notes that the new media culture is like that of earlier communal cultures.

William Blake stands as a first example of this form of communication. The art of William Blake stands as an example of how technology changed with the Industrial Revolution, and how the individual freedoms of the old system were taken away by the commodification and mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Ackroyd (1995 p 78) notes the mechanical and repetitive nature of Blake’s commercial engravings, and how these limited him within a ‘net’ of rules and restrictions. Blake was well aware (pp 292-293) that this not only reined in Art, but also changed the nature of human thought. Nonetheless, Blake took existing forms and tools, and used these to create his own method of fully integrating text and image to create his Illuminated Books (Viscomi, 2003, p 41). In effect, Blake was remediating the standard book with engravings into something different. Each of his productions, due to the printing and hand colouring process, was unique, with Blake often also reordering the pages (Viscomi, 2003, p 47). Blake’s works have been seen as a precursor of hypertext, created in a context that expressed the revolutionary milieu and the artist’s own expression of individual skill by transforming mass commodity items (books) and allowing an individual to control all aspects of production (Keep, McLaughlin and Parmar, 2000; Koren, 2005).

In their turn Blake’s works have since been remediated by other artists, including on the internet. The William Blake Archive (Viscomi, 2002) is a primary source, making high quality scans of his work available from anywhere in the world, while YouTube offers numerous Blake inspired works.

As a second, more modern, example of convergence, of its possibilities and its challenges, consider Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. In this case Joss Whedon deliberately set out to make a work outside of normal Hollywood controls, at which he was successful. As boyd (2010) points out however, a many-to-many distribution system is not inherently democratic, but relies on reaction and attention. If Joss Whedon had not already been famous, would his project have been so successful (Abbot, 2009)? Similar distribution methods have been employed by Radiohead (Morrow, 2009) and David Lynch (Akbar, 2010) but, again, these rely on already existing fan bases.

Ramos (2010) argues that Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (and other fan interactivities) are a folk culture that relies on collective intelligence, though it also builds from and cannot exist independent of already existing understandings and culture. In Whedon’s case, he actively encouraged fan participation in promoting the show, as well as creatively reimagining it (which Ramos contrasts with the restrictions LucasArts applied to Star Wars fans). Buckman (2010, p 10) links Whedon’s show (which was originally released as a serial) to the serial novels popular in the nineteenth century and which, while they were not interactive in the way digital media are, required readers to interact with the texts to form the novel, and thus to become part of a community that was also engaging in the same act.

The ‘long tail’ of the internet means a few sites will get the vast majority of the attention, while almost all sites will get little or none (Pingdom, 2010). This not a major issue if the site can gain the right sort of attention. The number of Blake’s 7 vidding fans may not be large, but if those who are can be directed to a site with such material then the social and community aspects of new media can be said to be fulfilled (Van Deusen, 2005).

Remix, blogging, YouTube, vidding and many more are all examples of how new media allows the communal participation in a digital ‘folk art’ form, though there are still clear tensions between this and the old model, particularly in the vexed issues of copyright and corporate challenges to maintain control of the systems essential to those corporations. This is still a transitional period, with many questions of control and form still to be decided (Jenkins, 2009a). Fair use (as considered by the producers of new media) and copyright (as considered by corporations) need to achieve a balance rather than continue with the present state of conflict (Collins, 2008).

Convergence therefore is enabling a new ‘folk art’ culture, where the users can control every aspect of their work from conception to distribution. As with folk art, issues of ownership (particularly of remixed work) and attention are not yet settled.

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