Tag Archives: craft

Experimental publishing, copyright laws and Mix03


I have had a fascination with publishing and its potential most of my life, so much so that I was Head of Art for a small publishing company for nearly four years alongside my teaching commitments. I am very interested in the new space opened up by the advent of digital publishing and all of the new business models that are emerging.

It could be argued that everything nowadays is publishing: the social streams in which we document every part of our lives for a variety of audiences as well as our blogs. We need to be careful about what we write in these digital spaces as we are just as responsible for the comments we make, defamatory statements or intellectual property infringement as the traditional and mainstream press. As Alex Newson with Deryck Houghton and Justin Patten point out, we can’t cite ignorance of these laws as our defense. Even high profile comedian Alan Davies had to pay £15,000 in damages to Lord McAlpine to settle a libel action over a tweet relating to false child sex abuse allegations in 2013. We are all fast becoming published authors, even if we are not very good ones.

It was with this interest and an awareness of the published nature of our modern lives that I went to Mix03. Co organised by one of our key Creative Conversations  The New Space of Publishing speakers, Kate Pullinger, the Mix Digital Conference at Bath Spa was held over 3 days and explored the various worlds of publishing looking at transmedia, ambient literature, reader participation, moving from analogue to digital, pedagogy, interactive forms and digital poetry to mention only a few areas.

Mix03 had speakers that explore and innovate in this fast growing sector. I was able to listen to exciting key note speakers, such as award winning novelist and game creator Naomi Alderman, Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen of Visual Editions and Ju Row Farr from Blast Theory. There were also interesting projects presented such as Colin Thomas’s Making Digital History and Claudio Pires Franco‘s research on new media forms of the book: both experimenting with the more interactive components in the digital publishing space.

It is the copyright laws, and their relationship with fan fiction and participatory writing projects that I find particularly interesting and while not under the remit of this conference, as it was more experimental and creative, they have an impact on all of us amateur journalists/authors/commentators/artists.  In particular Fan Fiction as described by Ciaran Roberts has interesting and complex issues around copyright. For experimental participatory writing projects such as Sarah Haynes’ The Memory Store mutual respect and recognition is a pre-requisite as the project requires participation in order for it to evolve  ‘Participatory projects are about both process and product.’ and so the copyright laws need to evolve in order to protect and not hinder these new projects and participants. 

The great joy of such conferences is not only to meet like minded people but also to meet people that have a viewpoint at odds with your own, or come at a subject from an entirely different angle. This allows you to reflect and think more deeply about your subject. For me new collaborations and new projects were sparked and new ways to think about existing projects were suggested. I came away feeling wonderfully invigorated, as though my brain had taken a much needed holiday to somewhere new and exciting. It is a conference that I would heartily recommend and I will be booking myself in for next year’s when the option arises.

Creativity and the Digital

Guest post by Gregory Sporton, Professor of Digital Creativity, Department of Creative Professions and Digital Arts, University of Greenwich and author of Digital Creativity

People of my generation have lived through quite an astonishing set of transformations of the idea of creativity.  As a young man embarking on a career in the arts, I was warned by my high school teacher that the best skill I could learn was how to fill in application forms for unemployment benefit.  The purpose of the sort of education I had was to create obedient and passive citizen-workers, and the very idea of the exercise of imagination was deemed an existential threat, about which at least someone felt they should intervene.

It turned out not be entirely true.  Certainly my work as a dancer never made me rich, and it was trivialised no end by those who thought it an eccentric career, but it also extended to me a range of opportunities and challenged my notions about the world in a way that a life in a factory or an office would never have been able to do.  For this alone, I have always thought of the exercise of the imagination as nothing other than a good.  The great art and artists I encountered offer alternative versions of life to the conventions of the societies in which I have lived.  Their work, at its best, asked questions about the accepted ways of a given culture, or reflected it through prisms that brought to light its properties. This is no small thing, and whilst there was not bountiful  material reward, there was a sense of morality (even if the work of art wasn’t always moral in a conventional sense).  But change was on the horizon in the shape of technologies that could help formulate and distribute ideas and image simply and quickly, and thus different notions about the role and function of creativity began to crystallise.

Whilst the education system continued to pump out graduates with the type of skills the industrial revolution required (mostly a capacity to show up on time and not revolt against doing repetitive tasks), the industries they thought they were servicing disappeared.  The principle of industry as the designated destination for the youth of industrialised societies did not die with them.  Instead, there has been a recalibrating of purpose, towards something formulated as the Creative Industries, the implication in its title one of reassurance about matching the productive efforts of those who were sent off to factories or mines.  The achievement of modern education in sticking with the industrial model despite the passing of its relevance is really quite something, reflecting a profound conservatism about the usefulness of such an education. But, as modern, developed economies lighted upon the potential for developing their intellectual and imaginative capacities as the new means for economic growth, the education system and the notion of creativity itself has had to change.  At stake has been jobs and futures, and a marginal practice has come to be seen as a key economic driver.  Having been combined with digital technologies, it is a powerful economic force as well as the cultural one it has always been.

There has come to be an association between notions about creativity and ideas about the application of technology through the creative industries.  The very phrase ‘creative industries’ suggests a significant change from the time when creativity, especially as manifested in the arts, was a domain of free play, thoroughly untrusted, and certainly of nugatory economic value.  Just how a widespread practice of creativity should manifest never seems to me to be entirely clear.  Given the rusted-on ideas that continue to dominate our education system, it is no surprise that the certainties and forms provided by the technology industries should form the aspiration and practice of what it is to be creative.  Thus an idea like ‘creativity’ comes to look a lot more like conformism than one would automatically think.  This manifests in all kinds of ways, from Cascading Style Sheets to Apple’s ‘Swift’ programming language: the means of creating is determined by the platform that is provided.  When encountering software interfaces that are designed for use by creative practitioners, we see the same levels of control, the victory of the usability engineers over the potential to experiment, as evidenced in that most deterministic environment of all: Creative Suite.  In its online iteration, it now learns more and more from its users, and can update itself to get rid of the workarounds or user choices, all in the interests of improved usability.

Art becomes the means of escaping the technological determinism that might be thrust on us by the corporates, but it may also suggest modes of operation or processes that might improve our relationship with technology rather than simply being dependent upon it.  The tendency of technology to systemise the creative is hardly surprising in an environment like the Internet.  Engineers, as Jaron Lanier has regularly pointed out, prefer interoperability to fidelity, and thus their conventions reflect this value.  But there is a more powerful undercurrent in the technology-driven version of creativity we now have that places an emphasis on improvisation and flexibility within a given system. This is especially true because those ‘given’ systems are latterly thrust upon us without giving us much choice, having been hooked in the first place into proprietary platforms.  Those who engage become users rather than creators, constrained by the protocols of technology if not by the mores of society.  That this is at the expense of narrative and expression, previously powerful tools in the artist’s arsenal, is not something the creative industries are particularly concerned about, but this must surely be where the road ends.  The ersatz creativity offered in the interface is only an extension of the decision trees and critical paths allowed us by the engineers.  What artists can really offer are those alternative versions, the parallel universes and a utilisation of technology for more than economic purposes.

Considering the ‘Open Portal’ effect on publishing

May 20th’s New Space of Publishing panel, masterfully chaired by Justine Solomons of Byte the Book, saw some energetic discussion and a really engaged audience. We were encouraged to hear all the panelists urging potential and practicing writers to continue writing; to keep at it, to hone their work and to find their audience. Steve Carsey, Director of Original Programming for Audible, Katrina Hopewell,  marketing consultant in broadcast and digital publishing, and Jeremy  Thompson, MD of independent publisher, Troubadour and its self publishing arm, Matador,  made a clear case for discovering and creating work for your audience. On the other hand Kate Pullinger, award winning novelist and digital storyteller and members of the audience made an equally strong case for letting your audience find you rather than writing for a perceived audience, acknowledging experimental poetry’s online success.

This notion of the author as solely in charge of what they choose to write with the freedom to hope that it resonates with some members of the public is key. Before the panel we asked if the traditional roles of writer, agent, publisher and publicist  have changed  and what was clear is that with advent of the internet, blogging and eplatforms the writer has many more options. Eszter Hargittai noted as far back as 2000 in ‘Open portals or closed gates? Channeling content on the World Wide Web’ that we no longer have to get past ‘gatekeepers’ to a potential audience, that a lack of big budgets and influence needn’t stop creators any more. The panel spoke about the plethera of ways to get content out there,  Katrina espoused the Wattpad model highlighting how that has earned some authors great deals with established publishing houses while creating an audience in the process,  such as Macmillan signing UK writer Nikkei Kelly’s Stylcar Saga trilogy.

But here we have the dichotomy of the modern publishing phenomena. Jeremy brought up, to the amusement of the whole audience, the notion that some books are better left inside their author. While he made the point light-heartedly he exposed the other side of this new found freedom. We are now bombarded with content and trying to find meaningful content is hard. The author is competing for people’s time, not just their click through attention. In 2009 Hat Trick Associates cited technorati estimates of over 200 million blogs worldwide, and blogging is only one form of sharing written content.

So now we have another set of questions, with so much content out there how can we find those newly written gems? Will we rely on crowd sourced reviews to usher us to new finds? Will the older authors potential lack of technical skill prevent them from effectively engaging in the digital revolution? We think that this has opened up the market place for all yet Hargittai and Walejko establish in their 2008 study ‘The Participation Divide: Content Creation and Sharing in the Digital Age’ that there is still inequality in this perceived freedom according to socio-economic class and gender, does this just mean we are getting much more of the same?

view from the back of the gallery

Steve and Katrina

Justine chairing

Kate and Jeremy

the 3 of us
Three of the Creative Conversations team. From left: Miriam Sorrentino, Gauti Sigthorsson, Rosamund Davies wielding the microphone.

Photos: Panagiotis Balalas

Beautiful Books

Angus MacWilliam in his 2013 Paper ‘The Engaged Reader’ draws our attention to a small moment in history when postgraduate Alan Kay posited the notion of the ‘Dynabook,’

‘a portable interactive personal computer, as accessible as a book.’

This 1968  notion was to eventually evolve into ebooks which are now consumed on a variety of different devices and are integrated into our everyday lives. A four-year research project conducted by the Book Industry Study Group ‘Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading’ suggests they have become a ‘normal means of consuming content.’ The public appears to have accepted them, notwithstanding generational variations. The ease and convenience of a lightweight and relatively small gadget holding a number of books has enticed us. The Publishers Association‘s Statistics Yearbook 2013 shows that Ebooks now make up 33% of fiction sales and 7% of non-fiction/reference sales. UK consumer e-book sales altogether rose 18% to £263m, overall  it is a relatively buoyant sector.

There was much hand wringing by publishers when they thought that this easy and convenient digital revolution would kill traditional publishing. However this doomsday prophesizing isn’t new, Albert Abramson in ‘The History of Television, 1942 to 2000’ notes that with the advent of the TV and the collapse of academic jobs anxiety over the loss of traditional publishing increased between the 1960s and the year 2000.  And publishing still managed to survive, we still read physical books.  In the UK with publishers selling 685.5 million physical books in 2012 (PA Statistics Yearbook 2012, The Publishers Association), print books must still be doing something right. Are publishers, writers and artists doing something new?

One clear area is perhaps not so much new as very, very old…back to the days of limited print runs rather than mass media, artist’s books and self-publishing. While print books can’t offer digital interactivity they can readily offer an entirely different, more visceral interactive experience through the printed book as artefact. Limited print runs for the artist/author are achievable as are limited edition covers for Traditional Publishers. Arifa Akbar notes (The Independent 27 November 2014) that he sees more and more beautifully designed books  in the postbags he receives each week.

A great example of this is Brazilian designer Gustavo Piqueira’s  book project, ‘Mateus, Marcos, Lucas e João’ which is a darkly humerous 21st-century spin on the Bible. Masterfully referencing the classic design elements of Medieval illuminated manuscripts and manuscript grid he revisions the world of the Old Testament, set now in a world of traffic jams and fast food. The book was launched alongside an exhibition, Inanis—iluminuras para o século 21; at the Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin library, at Cidade Universitária, in São Paulo. An excerpt is available for download from the exhibition website.

Another great example is Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Strange Library.’ Its enigmatic cover with attached library ticket holder draws you in to a beautifully designed experience in which a young schoolboy stops at the library on his way home to returns some books. Yet another beautiful example is Riverhead Books’ limited edition cover for Chang-rae Lee’s novel ‘On Such A Full Sea’ which was the first ever 3D printed slipcover. Set in a future America we follow the story of Fan, immersing ourselves in tales of hope, betrayal and the human condition.

So what is there that we can learn from the ‘new’ experimental design ethic in books and our appetite for them? We might ask if digital interactivity has had the effect of making us keener on interactivity in every experience, or indeed if the digital world has made is weary of interactive everything and we are looking for something that feels better crafted and more real? Naturally these aren’t the only questions, every question raises others; How else can art and design experience be integrated with texts and print? What new freedoms does this give to auteurs and  how should we price such artefacts?