Creativity as a Social Ontology

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Whilst creativity is often perceived as the product of the individual artist, or creative ensemble, it can also be considered an emergent phenomenon of communities, driving change and facilitating individual or ensemble creativity. Creativity can be a performative activity released when engaged through and by a community and understood as a process of interaction.

Monday, 19 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Scott Rettberg
Chair Person: 
Simon Biggs
Ruth Catlow
James Leach
Talan Memmott
Jill Walker Rettberg
ELMCIP Logo image

Chair: Dr. Scott Rettberg
2nd Chair: Prof. Simon Biggs

Whilst creativity is often perceived as the product of the individual artist, or creative ensemble, it can also be considered an emergent phenomenon of communities, driving change and facilitating individual or ensemble creativity. Creativity can be a performative activity released when engaged through and by a community and understood as a process of interaction.

The model of the solitary artist, producing artefacts that embody creativity, can be contested as the ideal method to achieve creative outcomes. The proposition is that creativity is an activity of exchange that enables people and communities. We do not propose creativity as instrumental, arising from a perceived need and seeking to deliver a solution or product, nor as a supply-side “blue skies" ideal, but as an emergent property of communities.

John Searle defines social ontology as "both created by human actions and attitudes but at the same time (having) an epistemically objective existence and ... part of the natural world". Our proposition is that social ontology, the space of interactions where individuals and collectives shape one another, exists as an autopoiesis, an emergent creative space.

The Internet has been an agent of change in the way we communicate and share information and it has subsequently affected the manner in which communities form. The advent of Web 2.0 has facilitated a materialisation of the internet as a social space. As both an augmenting and representational technology, the internet allows insight into how these processes unfold. Individuals and collectives can now emerge, shift and shape themselves within the dynamic communications spaces (protocols) that define what we now understand the internet to be, each possessing a distinctive discursive and ontological character.

Electronic literature and the digital arts are exemplary of creative practices that cross media and cultural divides. The media employed by practitioners in these domains are intrinsically convergent, technically and culturally. These practitioners are often highly technically literate and, in some instances, have contributed to the development of the technologies that they, and others, employ. Practitioners working in these fields have often developed their aims and methods through interacting with one another within online creative communities.

Paper Abstracts

The Creative Imperative

by Prof. Simon Biggs

Expanded concepts of agency permit us to question what or who can be an active participant in creative activity, allowing us to revisit the debate on authorship. We can ask whether creativity might be regarded as a form of social interaction. How might we understand creativity as the interaction of people and things rather than as an outcome of action?

Whilst creativity is often perceived as the product of the individual artist, or creative ensemble, it can also be considered an emergent phenomenon of communities, driving change and facilitating individual or group creativity. Creativity may be regarded as a performative activity released when engaged through and by a community and thus understood as a process of interaction.

In this context the model of the solitary artist, producing artifacts that embody creativity, is questioned as an ideal for achieving creative outcomes. Instead, creativity is proposed as an activity of exchange that enables (creates) people and communities. The creation of new things, and the forms of exchange enacted around them, can function to "create" not just things but also people, binding them in social groups and "creating" the community they inhabit.

It thus becomes possible to conceive of creativity as emergent from and innate to the interactions of people and to consider the gift-economy as fundamental to social formation. Such an understanding can function to combat the dominant instrumentalist view of creativity, that demands of artists that their creations have social (e.g.: "economic") value.

This contribution to the panel discussion will seek to engage these themes and concepts in the context of how online communities of creative practitioners form and interact.

We are the Medium - the Context - the Source of Networked Creativity

by Ruth Catlow

We are constantly faced in our networked culture with creative tension between individual and collective activities.

The network-aware artist necessarily acts as both originator and participant in this new context. The medium is the people, the environment, the complex physical and technical networks that we all engage and the interfaces that mediate our interactions. Imaginative and critical approaches informed by a grass roots perspective are neither technologically determined nor do they serve institutional, theoretical and art historical values (although these things play an important part). Instead, people (artists) challenge, hack and reimagine or reshape given interfaces to create their own imaginative contexts on their own terms. We claim the medium, we are the medium as individuals, groups, collectives.

I will present two images as the basis for my contribution to the panel discussion. The first, the familiar image by Paul Baran illustrating three different communication network topologies from “On Distributed Communications: 1. Introduction to Distributed Communications Network". Internet and world wide web topology can be understood as combining the decentralised and distributed networks in which all nodes have the potential to both transmit and receive. All nodes are accessible by all nodes and new nodes (people, machines, programmes, content) can always be added. This is an open, scale-free network which maintains connectivity regardless of the number of nodes added.

Secondly, the graphic invitation to join in with the first DIWO (Do It With Others) E-Mail Art exhibition. It represents a category-jumping network of actors: groups, a philosopher, an emoticon, a couple, devices, connecting materials, visual analogies (the tuft of grass- for grassroots) the speaking dildo (to acknowledge the material effect of sexuality on the life of the Internet) etc.

Can We Help Being Creative?

by Prof. James Leach

People on the Rai Coast of Papua New Guinea take responsibility for the fertility and reproduction of land and people. Through gardening, hunting, ceremony and initiation, they are continually ‘creating’: both people/places, and the conditions for the emergence of these things as recognisably human. Engaging in the continual creation of the human world is not optional for them but intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. Creativity is necessarily distributed in such circumstances, power over creation or destruction oscillates, but to be a person means participation. As such, the emergence of persons or things, as objects of contemplation, or exchange, or value and beauty, are achieved momentarily as elements of the wider process of which they are part and through which they have meaning.

By briefly reflecting on this example (of a people still located outside the reach of digital culture and historically unconnected with the conditions under which electronically mediated collaboration takes place) I wish to highlight questions about what we mean by ‘creativity’ in the realm of electronic literature and networked art (for example). In a culture where every action is a part of making the self, one with a very different history and technology from Reite, what is the analytic import of singling out digital arts practitioners from others as an example of a social ontology of creative practice? What (or who) is being made? What are efforts and actions directed through such channels making? If we accept (the premise of the panel rubric) that no action is outside creative process, then what kind of world is created by digital arts practices? Why do we use the language of creativity and of community here? Is it the recognition of creativity as such that makes such practitioners into a ‘community’?

Creative Communities: Nooks, Niches, and Networks

by Talan Memmott

This presentation looks at the formation of various creative communities as they emerge through network practices. Digital art and electronic literature communities largely develop out of mailing lists, online exposure to work, and the forwarding of links that others may find interesting. Over time, networks of practitioners begin to emerge based on affinity and how certain work or practice fits into the personal ontological privileging. As such, communities are distributed and appear disjunctive from the outside, yet are inclusive and conjoined by way of networked computers and aesthetic/poetic accord.  Based on observation over the last decade or so of creative digital practice, this presentation will look at trends and patterns of community development in electronic literature and digital art.

Electronic Authorship, Collaboration, Community, and Practice

by Dr. Scott Rettberg

Community has been a central focus of my career in the field of electronic literature, particularly in helping to shape and structure the Electronic Literature Organization, a USA-based nonprofit organization central to the field, and more recently as project leader of ELMCIP: Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation and Practice. I consider practical research and artistic community development vital to the creation of a persistent environment that enables network-based creative communities. When creative communities and research communties are not geographically co-located, institutional identities, online publications, directories, and knowledge bases, and in-person conferences, festivals, and events provide for a kind of floating agora that enables creative community to thrive across borders.

At same time, my practice emerges from my background as a fiction writer. Creative writing is generally if not correctly conceived of as a solitary act in which collaboration plays a lesser role than in other sorts of creative practice, for example the production of a staged drama or film. Both writing and reading fiction are typically understood as highly subjective acts, and authors and artists are understood to "own" their ideas and works in a personal way. Network based reading and writing practices foreground a number of complications of subjective writing and reading, from community-based writing projects, to multimedial literary productions, to radical changes in the nature of the reception and reader response process. None of these changes eliminate "the author" per se, but all force us to reconsider the frame of authorship and the models of collaborative creative literary practice enabled by the computer and the network environment.

This presentation will discuss some of the ways that electronic literature complicates conceptions of authorship and collaboration in the context of its emergent creative community. I will test these ideas against examples, both from my own practice as an author of network-based fiction projects including The Unknown, Kind of Blue, The Meddlesome Passenger, and Implementation, all of which involved different models of collaboration, as well as recent collective or collaboratively authored electronic literature projects including The Last Performance by Judd Morrissey, Mark Jeffrey, and others, the Exquisite_Code project by Brendan Howell and others, and TOC: a New-Media novel by Steve Tomasula and a team of artists and developers.

The Geneology of a Creative Community: Why is afternoon the “granddaddy” of hypertext fiction?

by Prof. Jill Walker Rettberg

Michael Joyce’s hypertext fiction afternoon, a story was first publicly presented in 1987, and is generally known as the “granddaddy” of electronic literature (Coover, 1992). It has been anthologised by Norton, is substantially analysed and discussed in dozens of academic treatises and is taught or at least mentioned in almost every course taught on electronic literature. But afternoon is not the first work of electronic literature. Why did this particular work become the progenitor of a community of writers, a common reference point for scholars and students for the next 25 years? There were alternative possibilities. (The case has already been made that interactive fiction is equally a form of electronic literature - but IF is a distinct genre with a distinct community.) Why didn’t bp Nichols’ work “First Screening: Computer Poems” (1984) start a movement? Why are there no cricital discussions of Judy Malloy’s database narrative “Uncle Roger”, published on the WELL in 1986/97? This brief paper will question the role of the mythical progenitor in the creation of a creative communtiy. Why do we tend to imagine a father or “granddaddy” of a field? Are certain kinds of work more likely to be adopted as progenitor of a field, or does the choice of progenitor depend more on social networks, modes of distribution or even chance? Would electronic literature have been different today if Nichols or Malloy had been crowned as the grandparent of the field?

Bios of the Participants

Simon Biggs

Simon Biggs is a visual artist born in Australia, 1957. He moved to the UK in 1986. Since 1978 Biggs has been working with digital and interactive systems in installation, networked and other media. Venues presenting his work include Tate Modern, Whitechapel, Institute of Contemporary Arts (London), Ikon (Birmingham), Centre de Georges Pompidou, Academy de Kunste and Kulturforum (Berlin), Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Macau Arts Museum, Cameraworks (San Francisco), Walker Art Center, Paco des Artes (Sao Paulo), Museo OI (Rio De Janeiro), McDougall Art Gallery (Christchurch), Experimental Art Foundation (Adelaide) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He has been keynote at numerous international conferences, most recently at Cornell University’s 2010 annual Society for the Humanities Conference. Publications include Autopoeisis (with James Leach, Artwords, 2004), Halo (Film and Video Umbrella, 1998), Magnet (McDougall Art Gallery, 1997) and CD-ROMs Book of Shadows and Great Wall of China (Ellipsis, 1996 and 1999). He is Professor at Edinburgh College of Art.

Ruth Catlow

Ruth Catlow is an artist and curator working at the intersection of art, technology and social change. As co-founder, with Marc Garrett, of Furtherfield a grass roots media arts organisation, online community and gallery (formerly HTTP Gallery) in North London, she works with international DIY artists, hackers, curators, musicians, programmers, writers, activists and thinkers. Her current focus is on practices that engage an ecological approach featuring an interest in the interrelation of technological and natural processes.  Ruth has been involved with developing networked participatory arts infrastructures such as VisitorsStudio and NODE.London. Ruth has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and is currently running degrees in Digital Art and Design Practice and developing a new MA in Fine Art and Environment at Writtle School of Design.

James Leach

James Leach studied Social Anthropology at Manchester University (B.Soc.Sci 1992, PhD 1997). He is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. His interests are in creativity, knowledge production, and ownership; in art, science and collaboration; and in the development of new technologies and their implications for social form. His published works have focused on kinship and creativity, place/landscape and art in Papua New Guinea, on creativity and the person, intellectual and cultural property, knowledge production and exchange in cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary contexts, gender and free software, and on the relation of law (specifically intellectual property law) to artistic and collaborative practice.

Talan Memmott

Talan Memmott is Assistant Professor of digital media and culture in the Digital Culture and Communications program at Blekinge Institute of Technology and an internationally known practitioner of electronic literature and digital art with a practice ranging from experimental video to digital performance applications and literary hypermedia. His work is widely available on the Internet, and has been included in electronic anthologies, featured at festivals and conferences, and been the subject of numerous critical texts.  His current research interests include digital poetics, practice-based research methods, and digital media pedagogy in the humanities. Memmott holds an MFA in Literary Arts/Electronic Literature from Brown University and is currently completing a PhD in Interaction Design at Malmö University.

Scott Rettberg

Scott Rettberg, the project leader of ELMCIP (Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice), is associate professor of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen. Rettberg is the cofounder of the Electronic Literature Organization, served as the organization’s first executive director from 1999-2001, and was a co-editor of the Electronic Literature Collection, Vol. 1. He is the coauthor of The Unknown, a Hypertext Novel (1998-2001) and The Unknown, an Anthology (2002), and the author of Kind of Blue (2003), a serial novel for email. Rettberg has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cincinnati, an M.A. in Fiction Writing from Illinois State University and a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Coe College.

Jill Walker Rettberg

Jill Walker Rettberg is Professor of Digital Culture at the University of Bergen, Norway. Her research investigates how people tell stories online. She has published a book on Blogging (Polity Press, 2008), co-edited an anthology about World of Warcraft, and has published over 20 papers on social media, electronic literature and creative practices.