Third Space

Joi Ito, founder and CEO of Creative Commons, was the luncheon speaker at Monday’s GIA meeting. His relaxed and likable presence comes across as realness personified. His low-key style gives me a sort of internal headshake. By the time Ito’s presentation ended, I was buzzing with a frequency of intellectual excitement I’d normally associate with verbal pyrotechnics. How did he do it? Brilliance, originality, groundedness…. You had to be there: I wish you had been.

I thought about it all day, especially in the last session I attended in the afternoon, as I listened to a circle of artists, organizers, and funders take part in “Breaking out of a Bifurcated World: A Bridge Conversation on Philanthropy.” More about that below.

Ito began with a few stories relevant to his audience of artists and funders, such as serving on the first internet art jury for Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria, fifteen years ago. That experience helped to define the internet as an art space. It also revealed a growing convergence of art and entrepreneurship, giving awards to people who identified as engineers or scientists, rather than as artists. It helped to create “a kind of community of artists that worked together with business people,” generating notable Web-based successes that twinned some aspect of art and enterprise. The best internet enterprises, Ito said, come from an arts background. Among others, he mentioned Kickstarter, as well as (long since sold for multimillions), his most lucrative Web investment as a venture capitalist.

Ito described how that first experience with Ars Electronica introduced him to the boundedness of the artworld, because some people got upset at the idea that the internet projects receiving awards should be called “art.” “You don’t know what art is,” they told him, “that’s design, it’s craft, not art.”

He used that point to draw a large circle, lassoing an entire mindset, how in old-style institutional cultures, exclusivity is the basis for value. It used to be expensive to create and share content, he explained, which entailed convening people and creating and distributing information in hard copy. He cited two examples: pre-internet development of large, collaborative projects, and the old model of the university. Within such frameworks, large-scale accomplishment needs many experts, huge amounts of time and money, and massive infrastructure. Having invested so much, you maintain quality by restricting and protecting your creations: control access, make people pay to get at them, use that scarcity to raise their value.

In contrast, with the internet, people can connect easily, creating flat, collaborative structures, making it possible for people without a lot of resources to participate as equals, so long as there are common-denominator protocols to facilitate that. In this new environment, there are far fewer gatekeepers; people can participate without seeking permission. Old-style formal education and arts thinking contrast with new-style informal education and arts participation in precisely the same way.

“When you remove the need for permission and distribute the risk,” Ito said, “you get a lot of innovation.” The development process can require modest investment, limiting the impact of risk, enabling repeated pivoting, as an idea morphs from form to form until it finds its right application. “When the cost of innovation is so low,” he said, “the cost of failure is very low, so if you don’t succeed, you pivot. You hold a general trajectory of where you want to go, moving along and embracing serendipity…You look at it as signal, not noise.”

Conversely, the more risk-averse you are, the more you invest in elaborate planning, the more you introduce extra steps to insulate yourself rom risk, the more expensive failure becomes.

Creative Commons comes into the picture as the necessary new way to license and share content in this new environment. Ito listed a remarkable selection of projects, but rather then repeat them, I’ll just suggest you check out the case studies on the CC site.

I was thinking about this in Monday afternoon’s “Bridge Conversation on Philanthropy.” Ito’s thinking seemed intensely relevant, even though no one mentioned his talk, because the same underlying dynamic of scarcity and exclusivity versus participation without permission was much on people’s minds.

Many of the participants described the double or multiple consciousness that was part of the reality of an activist—often, someone whose culture and consciousness were shaped by a heritage and experience very different from their current institutional milieux—now working in or with foundations. People used different terms to describe it. “I’m a shape-shifter.” “I code-switch with language.” “It’s a double consciousness to be in a whole differently place internally than outside.” “It’s important to be in the room, but you have to know who you are before you get there.” “I’m a squatter: this is not the world I was meant to be in, but I chose it, and I’m coming in and I dare you to move me out.” “What does it take to be a shapeshifter? How do you move the in-between?” “Third space is where the sanity lives. I have to create a third space so my whole can have somewhere to live, because everyone wants me to be either/or. Until we create a larger space where both/and can exist, third space is where we hold ourselves.” “I live in complexity.”

This dynamic was described in many tongues, illuminating the desire for flat structures of participation without the permission of gatekeepers, while also describing the existing reality of bumping again and again into barred gates.

Much of the conversation touched on that morning’s National Capitalization Project discussion (NCP, which I wrote about in my previous post). In one of the breakout groups after the NCP presentation, a Bridge Conversation participant suggested that the bottom line wasn’t only about financial success and accumulation, but also social and cultural value. Another breakout group member responded dismissively: Get with the real world. That expressed the boundedness Ito described, that some people feel they possess the right to define the real world, and to confer access to it.

For instance, the process of dividing into breakout groups by budget size felt false to some Bridge Conversation participants, seeming to cement the equation of money and power. “What about our wealth of knowledge?” someone asked. “You have to pause and say, ‘Okay, I know my ancestors are with me and I know I’m here for the future, and how I move through the space in between with honor and respect.'” Another participant experienced the NCP conversation as “a microcosm of the philanthropic arena.” “As communities of color,” said a third, “I get so tired of the same conversation; I don’t want my daughter to be having the same conversations and feeling the same.”

One can see how the impression of two worlds takes shape. The hard work, knowledge, and focus behind NCP was undertaken out of caring for the future of arts organizations in a deeply unsettling time. But how the problem was framed and who took part in addressing it produced a certain type of result: It’s uncanny how closely the notion of consolidating funding to preserve the most worthy organizations—and accepting the triage view of “oversupply”—parallel Ito’s idea of the outmoded paradigm of “only giving value to a limited number of people, and being careful about who you give this scarce resource to.”

The Bridge Conversation participants who perceived the results as a world that would not welcome their knowledge, and experience are motivated equally by caring for what they most value, and not seeing those things reflected in NCP so far. How would arts funding and funder-grantee relationships change if Ito’s new-paradigm notions held sway: keeping front-end costs low, removing the need for permission and distributing the risk, holding a general trajectory of where you want to go, moving along and embracing serendipity? Surely the recipients and results would be more diverse. Surely multiple ideas of value would be able to contend more fully and fairly. What would it look like to create a third space big enough to hold everyone in equality? That I would like to see.

Joi Ito cited Nine Inch Nails as one of Creative Commons’ major successes in direct artist distribution. Here’s “A Strange Kind of Love,” a rather lovely song by bandmember Peter Murphy.

And “These Memories,” by John Trudell, an artist I have followed for many years, and who has something deeply relevant to say here.