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The Decline of Listservs

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It's been asked why Rhizome, and for that matter a lot of listservs for that matter, have dropped in the degree of content during the present decade. There are a few lists out there that still have a lot of content, traffic, but in general, Pall Thayer's observation that listserv traffic has dropped considerably, at first glance, appears to be true.

There is a real confluence of issues that has led to the issue at hand. Most of what Curt Cloninger has said is true, but it seems to be around a few key issues:
A change in the community
Different modes of content production/distribution
Different agendas of the next generation

In regards to the community, there is something to be said about the Curt's comments of the 90's generation (who I call the Third Wave) of New Media being in grad school/going academic. I see Cloninger is in grad school now, as I remember Klima mentioning he was going to do, as well as several others. That's what I did, and am now in my second year as a prof in Chicago. Will probably start my PhD next year, as it looks like an MFA in the states will not be enough in the long run.

In addition, a lot of the Third Wave have families and careers now, and doubly do not have the time to participate like they used to. I know that when Tribe and I were in Washington DC for the Renascence 07 show, he had to leave early after the panel to take care of family matters. Fortunately or not, I have to work 1900 km away from my family, which gives me a touch more time.

Tribe, Galloway, Kanarek - most of them are academic now, a lot of others had to focus on work or focusing their careers on sustainability. I know I have a lot less time, and I've been streamlining my practice again and again to maximize my time and effectiveness, and I hate when art and Taylorism converge.

Content - the listserv, while vibrant in terms of lists like Empyre and IDC, are largely 90's modes of communication. Instead of circulating content, digital discourse has turned into a "booth" mentality, in which bloggers pointcast and hope that people aggregate their blog. It isn't about the collective discourse as much as a constellation of little stations and brands. Many of them are structured so that they might even make money from their brand of content, such as (a LOLcat site) that is the source of income now for the creator.

The next generation of New Media artists (from which I am from the prior gen) have a different set of agendas, priorities, and degrees of support. For example, when Rhizome got started, it was, for the most part, funded by odd revenue streams and Tribe's resources, as far as I knew. As that ran out, Rhizome had to act like any other NPO...

Secondly, from having hung out for a long time, it was their primary conceptual project for the first 2-3 years; I didn't see them out on a lot of residencies, writing for other entities, maybe a little curation. But from my vantage point, for the first couple years, the rhizome crew didn't do much else.

And lastly, from two-three places from the preceding, although we are in a period of "social media", it appears that it is a particulate cloud of individuals trying to promote their own work/agendas and forming alliances/networking for enlightened self-interest rather than acting collectively. In many ways, it feels like grass-roots collectivism versus free-market competition.

Much of this feel comes from the increased robustness of the art market, acceptance of conceptual New Media, related objects, and the emergence of media-influenced artists from Murakami to Arcangel. When there weren't that many opportunities, we all had more time to hang out and collaborate. Now that there are more possibilities to have a viable art career, a lot of us are trying to make a go of it for a while.

It also comes from a difference from the way New Media artists are born. Many of the ones I work with now were minted in the academy; I was one of the last generations of autodidacts. New Media artists (sic) are becoming part of the establishment, and while there is still the somewhat segregated New Media community, the integration/cooptation really started in between net.condition, Whitney Bi 2000 and the show at the SF MoMA, all of which validated New Media as an "art form"

Therefore, the new New Media artists are much more akin to their "contemporaries" than to the previous generations of practitioners. They're taught to be part of the Art World, to aggressively seek galleries, media, get representation, find commissions, look at how to bridge the material culture gap, build the practice. This is very different from the 90's artist, who simply did not have these routes to travel, more often than not.

An example of the difference between generations was an interaction with someone who I had remarked about their level of promotion/aggressiveness in networking, which actually got on my nerves a little. They gave me a hug, and said, "Don't worry, we just have to get out there in our business..." This revealed an epiphany of generational difference that I had not realized until then, and I replied, "I guess you're right, but for me, it's not a business, it's my _life_."

Therefore, there are a lot of different constituencies in the New Media universe. There are collectivists, the non-profits, the academics, the career artists. There are the 90's community types, the 00's point-cloud "socials", the free radicals, the stars, and so on. But what is obvious is that things have changed, and people notice. The question remains; are there constituencies large enough to support truly collective enterprises, or are we in a free-market, aggregate-sifting, competitive pointcast culture? Although I am probably more akin to the collectivist sort who would love to not worry about survival as I was in the 90's, I ran out of resources, and now have to balance my time between exploration, exhibition, and education. It's not a bad life, but I'd certainly love to have my life in the late 90's back again, for a lot of reasons.

the evolution

What Patrick doesn't talk about is the emotion that can occur on a listserv and email in general. People are always pushing their agenda but on a listserv there is sometimes heavy conflict and flaming as well as hounding and pandering. I have often been accused of being abrasive when I call people on their misrepresentations. I participated in a project on the Empyre list that was included in the Documenta.
It was a discussion on the various Leitmotif's. It was edited by Christina McPhee. Therein lies the crux of the matter. Much of the unfiltered litserv talk is bad writing that screams for editing. One of th postive occurences to blogs is that the writers tend to take their time and write clearly. In many cases there is an editor who goes over the text like in print publications before it is presented.
In this way, the quality of an idea and the clarity with which it is presented becomes as important as getting it out there.

The point I'm trying to make is that any organizing system or principal must also have guidance. Social networking software has a goal but the goal is simply to deliver consumers to an advertising market. It's a direct marketing system. For art that is a very odd circumstance. If being an artist is about having a career or plugging into the global marketing system than I need to call myself something else, perhaps an audio-visual visionary or something that has no marketing resonance or academic prestige.