The Next Layer as a Medium for Practice-led Research
Taxi to Praxi
This text expands on some of the topics mentioned in the original call for participation for the taxi-to-praxi workshop. It explains some of the motivations and the general ideas behind the research day but is by now way a complete summary of all the topics we would like to address. Currently to this text have contributed Lindsay Brown, Adnan Hadzi and Armin Medosch. If you feel that you would like to add something, please feel free to rewrite this text or create a new one. To create a new revision, do the following: Once you are in the edit section with this article open, apply your changes and then go to the bottom and click "create new revision". You can also use the text field "Log Message" to explain your revisions.
The Next Layer
Academic or scholarly practice has always been a group as well as a singular activity. Discussion, dialogue, seminars, colloquium, meetings with one or more peers or supervisors, all shape the experience of the PhD research student. A collaborative culture underpins knowledge generation and the academic disciplines in general. thenextlayer.org has therefore been founded to create a platform to aid a more collaborative way of conducting research. Thus by a number of researchers documenting and annotating their research processes, gives rise to exciting prospects of information sharing, where overlapping interests can 'find' each other and benefit from the work of others without constituting theft, lack of ingenuity or even plagiarism, but simply by laterally noticing somebody else’s 'stream' of research.
A content management system (CMS) is a program used to create a framework for the content of a Web site. Based on the CMS Drupal with various modules (sections) contributed by others, the CMS allows the easy creation, maintenance and handling of a new type of multimedia research journal that can include text, images, audio, video, RSS feeds bibliographic references, bookmarks and taxonomies (key descriptions) used to annotate all those media. As Drupal allows the combination of content types, it can best be imagined as many-to-many relationships between different items that become 'nodes' in a database on which 'views' can be created aided by the existence of the taxonomical system. A combination of processes such as collaborative filtering and techniques known from social software sites, promise benefits for the individual as well as knowledge production in general. These benefits I call ‘lateral benefits’ as they are based on 'weak' types of collaboration. In short, the site is in the early stages of becoming a giant catalogue of files which have been put together by individual contributers. Each file is linked to a user and annotated or 'tagged' by various key words.
In addition to this, The Next Layer is increasingly optimised for handling all kinds of texts in a professional way and to support what we call 'real peer review'. This does not hold the contention that the papers in peer reviewed journals are not really read by the reviewers but simply that this has become a very formal system whose results are usually copyrighted. The real peer review which we hope to enable is not only concerned with the finished paper but starts much earlier and can concern the design of research processes, methodologies and taxonomies amongst other things. Everything can be subject to peer review if users have an interest in each others work and decide to write (respectful) criticism and comments. The software can never automate that but can support such processes by wiki-like functions such as creating versions or diffs, where only the last one is visible but previous versions are kept, enabling the posting of comments and forum discussions. While many things already work quite well, the site is in permanent transition. This growth and transition process itself is also one which is open to peer review, therefore opening the site building and function up to collective decision making.
Collaborative Culture and the Hacker Way
Collaboration had an influence on early computer and internet culture which originated from within academia and its culture of open sharing. This was the mindset which enabled the creation of the internet. Early hacker culture (working inside academia, for instance at MIT, cf. Levy 1984) and academic culture both shared values of an open access to means of learning and work and experimentation and making public the fruits of this work. Since the late 1960ies, this lead to the creation of ARPANET later renamed the Internet and services such as TCP/IP, FTP, Telnet, Usenet, listserv, Gopher and HTTP. All these applications in one or the other way support the sharing of knowledge and remote cooperation. The fact that they were created inside academia meant that they were released as open standards, many in the form of an RFC, a Request for Comment, published openly and accessibly. The existence of those open protocols and other pieces of software in the public domain allowed innovation to flourish on the edges, everybody who has the intellectual skills, a PC and an internet connection can develop applications for the internet.
The internet as a technology is highly distributed and decentralised. The character of software that exists on the basis of open standards allows innovation to happen in a decentralised way because no-one owns the internet1. Since the early 1990ies this allowed a free and open source software revolution to happen. It's most well known achievements are amongst others the operating system Linux, the Apache webserver the Moziall/Firefox browser. Platforms such as http://sourceforge.net/ give evidence of the sometimes dazzling speed and breadth of innovation. Of course not all these projects are completely and utterly 'free'. Some are supported by academia, some by companies or Non-Governmental Organisations2
Apart from general progress in the computer science and networking through FOSS, there have also been particular movements on the intersections between art, activism, hacking culture and code, which are worth mentioning. These projects have been among the most inspirational, from the visual programming language of Pure Data to live CDs such as dynebolic, providing applications and platforms for audio, video and live streaming. An emerging next generation of artists working more or less exclusively with FOSS such as Bitnik, Constant and the scene around Piksel festival, has emphasised alliances between creative software developers (hackers) political activists and community arts that were already working in non-hierarchical ways. This is allowing the generation of new ideas which are now at the forefront of current socio-technical developments.
We still stand by the overall tendency of the initial formulation of the call:
"... other sectors of society have embraced the collaborative and participative characteristics of these technologies more strongly than the academic sector. Independent artists and creative free software developers have made more rapid advances than the more traditionally minded arts and humanities departments in academia."
The Structure of Academia: A Collaborative Answer for the Individual Researcher
Practice led PhD projects benefit from these collaborative developments. Examples of this are the PhDs of the hosts Armin Medosch and Adnan Hadzi, who are looking into FLOSS and participative art practice and the application of FLOSS methods to film-making respectively. For the reasons given, the claim can be upheld that the free and independent developers at the intersections of arts and computing have, for many institutions, created cutting edge concepts by going back to the roots of collaborative culture and lacing it with new ideals, methods, technologies and an open interdisciplinary approach that is non-hierarchical in nature.
More than looking at just concrete results it is maybe worth noting that a social transmission act has happened over the past decade. The ethical attitude behind these developments has spread far beyond the narrower geek and hacker cultures and has spawned free content movements such as Creative Commons, enabling what some commentators have constituted as a "collaborative turn". The sort of decentralising DIY hacker ethics reappears under different names and disguises. In today’s society a 'wikification' of the world has taken place. Knowledge production and information dissemination happens increasingly in decentralised as well as collaborative ways. The social software and Web 2.0 applications have led to a widespread usage of platforms which allow individuals to express themselves such as in flickr, YouTube and their many clones.3 Combined with peer to peer file-sharing (P2P) mechanisms, these developments mean that the internet has become like a gigantic multimedia library where everybody can study all the time providing new ways of exploiting collectivity in knowledge production and a new approach to intellectual property.
With this background in mind we can say that the universities are in danger of losing touch with this new cultural and ethical turn. This is ironic since at the time the internet was solely academia's creation, the roles have been somehow reversed. A neoliberal turn, marked by the Thatcher and Reagan government, and another "third way" type of continuation of their policies through the Clinton-Blair years, has led to a significant change to the arrangements within which knowledge production and learning happens in higher learning institutions. The introduction of tuition fees by a Labour Government and other changes, mean that university education has been under increasing economic pressures. Academic institutions are seeking to find ways of generating profit through outsourcing and collaboration with corporations and through a range of exploitations of intellectual property, from technological innovations to the 'enclosure' of research in protected proprietary journals which are often expensive.
Research has thus been squeezed into a narrower channel, where Arts and Humanities subjects are forced to comply with similar research frameworks and methodologies that support science4. This means that only specific types of study gain funding through Government Organisations such as the Arts and Humanities Research Council. These can be projects that have some financial gain as regards preservation for example, and consist in the use of archives within artistic practice and in the collection of different historical information, materials and media5. This development is leading to the proliferation of so-called internal markets which induce colleagues to behave as if they were working for competing organisations6.
In continental Europe, instead of opposing those developments, universities are restructuring themselves according to the US and UK model. The ‘Bologna Process’ as it is called, was an EU directive aimed at standardising education accross Europe. This has led to Modularisation, a sub division into internationally compatible teaching units. Along with assessing them quantitatively and qualitatively using a credit point system, it is all aimed at an ‘efficiency criteria’ that runs counter to art education aimed at individualisation and difference just as much as to the values of freedom and self-determination that this discipline conveys7. In turn Universities in Britain, clamber over each other in a bid to win high marks in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) , a Government funded competition that every four years, assesses the quality of research within institutions. This inevitably leads to competition, whereby one criteria of ‘quality’ is assessed by how many researchers pass successfully through the institution. Funding for individuals is thus affected. The student that is most likely to graduate quickly, is therefore the one that is most likely to gain funding from the institution.
These resulting pressures are being passed on to students who are encouraged to think about 'their' individual development and how they can use intellectual property for financial benefits. As the structure of the whole situation encourages students to be selfish, learning and open exchange is threatened by a culture of fear and anxieties. The dominant political line (not at our institutions, but on the government level) is one that fosters a climate where each one is for her or himself and is made to support an often intrinsic ideology of individual achievement. (A PhD has to give evidence of the original contribution of one person.) While in the natural sciences collaborations are possible, yet in a very structured way, in the arts and humanities group works are not really much heard of. In the end the individuals have to proof themselves as the Critical Practice group from Chelsea reported at the recent Disclosures conference. Thus, while many PhD research students in the arts and humanities collect research notes, draft papers, bookmarks and references, sketches, images, audio, video, they usually do so for themselves only.
We believe that this is not necessarily the best course of action. thenextlayer.org has been founded to create a platform for a more collaborative type of conducting research.
The taxi-to-praxi experimental research workshop invites people to join thenextlayer.org both online by becoming a user and in real space by joining the research day on 21st of April. To join online simply register an account, to announce your coming for the 21st please email
Adnan at a.hadzi (at) gold.ac.uk.
thenextlayer.org serves both as a platform to prepare taxi-to-praxi and will itself also be a topic at the workshop. Other goals remain to be discussed to make visible different practices, methodologies and communal taxonomy systems compatible to all.
- 1. cf some public writings by internet pioneer Vint Cerf on this point
- 2. Some software projects are completely "free" insofar they are only supported by the developers themselves. Pointing this out risks creating the misunderstanding that there is some sort of dogma that free software development has to be completely self supported. This is not the case, many projects exist in a mixed economy. Somebody may please add a reference that gives evidence to this claim (maybe something can be found on First Monday or some text by Stalder or someone.)
- 3. As a sort of side-thread which does not concern the flow of this argument, it could be investigated if this really constitutes empowerment or is a new form of exploitation
- 4. Artistic Research and the Poetics of Knowledge, Busch, K., A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher, Antwerp, p.152, (2007)
- 5. Work, Projects and Art Education: Notes on Artistic Research, Von Bismark, B., A Portrait of the Artist as a Researcher, Antwerp, p.152, (2007)
- 6. Ibid pg 131 See Charles Harrison’s commentary as part of: ‘Umfrage. No Guru No Method No Mater. Zur Methode und Zukunft der Lehre’. Text zur Kunst, 14 (2004), no: 53, p. 27
- 7. Ibid pg 131