Pressure on Online Artistic Freedom

Article by Yvette van Nierop about Rhizome and The Kingdom of Piracy.

For years now governments and corporations are trying to gain the control over Internet. At the same time, small groups of artists are trying to maintain some of the freedom that defined the Internet in its early years, when it was just becoming popular. Under the pressure of new legislation and the development of technological control over content and distribution, Internet communities that promote the free exchange of information have to face ever more obstacles. Two of the projects that were invited during the Open Territories, Open Workspaces of DEAF03, have been directly affected with the developments in this area. Both projects, Rhizome.org and the Kingdom Of Piracy, are ongoing projects that try to maintain and expand artistic platforms on the Internet where creative interaction and sharing of ideas and materials can exist without the restrictions of censorship and copyrights.

The Rhizome.org platform was developed in 1996 as a non-profit organization. It became a digital meeting place for a small but international community of people with an interest in the artistic potentials of new media. Rhizome.org has different objectives. Not only does it function as a distribution station of information and artworks, Rhizome.org also invites artists to make contributions like new media art and relevant links to other web sites. It is a discussion forum, a digital magazine, an agenda with events to come worldwide and more. Besides this, Rhizome.org also tries to preserve the artworks and writings that are entrusted to their care.

In the first years of existence, Rhizome offered all those services for free. But no matter how idealistic the ideas of the initiators Mark Tribe and Francis Hwang, in this world there is no way around the financial aspects of providing such a platform. In its early years they could maintain the web site with the help of subsidies, but Rhizome received fewer grants in the last few years while at the same time their expenses have increased. Despite the effort that is put in the fundraising activities, since November 2002 Rhizome.org can no longer offer free membership. Now artists who have contributed artworks or writings to the database of Rhizome, have to pay to access them or update them. For Western standards, the fee is reasonable, five dollar per year, but that is quite a sum for most people living in Eastern Europe and other second and third world countries. This is a step towards inequality on the Rhizome network. This makes it clear that the freedom of the Internet is a fragile thing that can easily be undermined by economical demands.

The Kingdom Of Piracy has encountered problems in maintaining their web site as well. Similar to Rhizome.org, the key objective of is the free sharing of information. For them the problem was not the financing of the website but censorship from the Acer Digital Art Center that originally commissioned the project. was launched in Taiwan in 2001 for ArtFuture 2002, but although the art society reacted enthusiastically to this online exhibition, the web site was taken off line in the summer of 2002. The main problem was the name Kingdom Of Piracy. In Taiwan, a major anti-piracy action was launched by that time and although the Kingdom does not do anything illegal, the fact that they refused to dissociate themselves from the notion of piracing was enough for ADAC to deny them access to the server. Since then they have restored their website but the direct experience of censorship has made a lasting impression in their approach of control issues. They have become champions of the idea of Free Networks where there is no one who can pull the plug if you say anything that might annoy someone with power. "A Free Network is a telecommunication system built, owned and maintained by the people who use is, rather than a service brought to consumers by business. It is not necessarily 'free' as in cost, but more to the point, autonomous and self governing."

(So, what is a Free Network anyway? - http://www.picopeer.net/wiki/index.php/FreeNetworks)

Both Rhizome.org and have encountered forces that threaten their objective of maintaining an open online workspace where the free sharing of information is possible. Economical and political developments seem to force the Internet away from free interaction towards tight supervision by commercial enterprises and governmental control. Right now the impact of those developments might seem rather small, hardly a reason for concern, but on the long term it might have a consequence for everybody who works with the Internet. After all, the restriction, whether economical or political, of artistic freedom is a restriction of freedom in general.

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