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03.23 Joline Blais, Jon Ippolito

Evaluating Collaborative Work, Interauthorship, Open Content

  • Introduction:

Evaluating Collaborative Work: Tenure Processes in New Media How can collaborative work and publishing on blogs, and mailinglists be evaluated? What are criteria to evaluate new media practioners?
Ippolito and writer Joline Blais are currently at work on a book entitled "The Edge of Art" and recently co-founded the Still Water program for network art and culture at the University of Maine. At Still Water, Ippolito, also Associate Curator of Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, is at work on three projects -- the Variable Media Network, the Open Art Network, and an exhibition called Mind Sets -- that aim to expand the art world beyond its traditional confines. Both are faculty at The University of Maine.

Ipolito_blais_1About Jon Ippolito, Joline Blais:
Jon Ippolito is an artist, Guggenheim curator, and co-founder of the Still Water program for network art and culture at the University of Maine where he is an Assistant Professor of new media.
Fiction writer Joline Blais pioneered the development of the Media Studies program in SCPD at New York University. She has a background in history and comparative literature at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania.

in Speaker Series | this section only


Copyleft and Tenure: Towards a Network Model

Interview with Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito
(adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz: The academic legitimization of the wide variety of new media research practices is a widely discussed topic. From the collaborating media artist to the media critic who publishes online, content sharing does not always further tenure processes. More often than not, the notion of open access is at odds with the business logic of the university. Can debates about tenure, for example, lead to the development of models that have value also outside of academe?

Jon Ippolito: Tenure, like copyright, has lost sight of its original purpose. There is a parallel between the problem that the university has in adapting to the digital world and the problems that copyright has in adapting to that same world. In both cases an initially very helpful idea has been corrupted into a paradigm of scarcity that keeps knowledge products in a small circle of a particular subculture. Currently, the tenure review process does not account for collaborations, as you point out. Knowledge is increasingly locked away, attached to money. In the case of tenure the gold standard is contributing to academic journals, each of which may cost a university $ 10,000 annually in subscription fees. This makes a sizable number of subscriptions to such magazines only possible for the Harvard's and MIT's, and often leaves professors at other schools unable to assign students their own texts because their library cannot afford them.

Yet the instruments of tenure and copyright can be used, perhaps, as a way to re-think these concepts. Copyleft/GNU licenses enforce a more democratic system. How can tenure be used in a similar way? A new initiative we are working on, the Maine Intellectual Commons, is exploring this question. One of our University of Maine colleagues, Harlan Onsrud, has recommended re-writing the tenure review criteria to favor open access publications over pay-for-access journals. The original idea of peer-review was great, but it has been corrupted by small hegemonic groups who have a pre-set investment in older intellectual paradigms. They often have an exclusive stranglehold on a field. If we broaden the notion of "peer" to what it means in the realm of peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella or bitTorrent, suddenly the term connotes inclusion rather than exclusion.


Prioritizing open access publications is a hard thing to push through a university, however, because of all the bureaucratic hoops you have to negotiate, from the administration to the faculty senate to the unions. So Harlan suggested the short-term goal of simply re-writing the forms on which people submit their tenure applications. The top slots would be filled with open access categories. This would essentially not change the criteria but would make professors think twice when they realize that they do not have anything in these first four slots for open access books or articles. This is one half-way measure that functions in a similar way to copyleft, which is a half-way measure in adapting to the problem of copyright.


Joline Blais: My question in relation to tenure process is that of responsibility. Whom am I responsible to? Am I responsible to the local community or to a global network of researchers in my field? Do the people who live in my community have anything to contribute to my research? This semester I invited members of the local Native American community who live just a few miles from the university to take part in the class without paying tuition. They asked questions, they raised local questions (i.e. in relation to a river-reclamation project to clean up one of our rivers). That became part of the course material.

Also related to questions of tenure is the concern with hierarchies. We try to move tenure away from hierarchies to networks. I was taken by a recent essay by Alex Galloway, "Global Networks and the Effect on Culture," in which he says that one should not really attack a system directly as it is very hard to bring it down. What he recommends is a routing around strategy, just like in the Internet. Between server and client a packet of information finds the way of least resistance, sometimes also breaking up the information. Alex suggests to route around a system or structure so that the particular system or structure becomes irrelevant. We think of this routing around also as a model for the tenure review processes in the way that more people get involved and find ways to become successful using different strategies.

JI: Galloway's essay came up during a week-long battle Joline and I have been fighting over whether community networks are ultimately empowering.

JB: Jon is of the opinion that networks are deeply empowering but Alex's final comment is that the Powers That Be are now onto the value of networks and work themselves in network structures.

JI: Well, Joline is right, we have to find ways to prevent structures from being co-opted. Tenure was originally created to go beyond narrow networks of people who know each other so as to allow outspoken people to be protected in some way and benefit society as a whole.

Copyright was also originally meant for underdogs who wanted a way of protecting their own works and yet have those things contribute to a vibrant public domain. But now dead-tree monographs pale by comparison to Google hits as a measure of influence, while a treasure trove of music and movies are locked out of public reach because their creators have ceded their rights to EMI or Disney.

TS: Some of my European colleagues perceive the American tenure system as "slavery." But the German academic system of the "master class" in which god-like professors descend down to their students looks as tragic to me. How can you envision a system that triggers creativity?

JI: I am in strong favor of hacking systems like tenure to promote the free circulation of ideas and protect the blasphemers. Academia was conceived with that goal in mind.

JB: When UC-Boulder professor Ward Churchill criticized the US after 9/11, Republican Bill Owens, governor of Colorado, had to call for Churchill's resignation. Note the language: he had to "call for his resignation" because there was no easy way to fire him. Regardless of what you think of Churchill or his views, I consider it important to build structures of dissent, and in its original form tenure was one of them.

JI: That is right, in a corporation he would just have been handed a pink slip--end of discussion. So tenure, like copyright, can be a lever to assert yourself. In last November's Conference on the Intellectual Commons, Neeru Paharia described a proposal someone made for a "no military use" Creative Commons license. We need to be thinking creatively about these kinds of levers.


JB: Yes, but even traditional tenure structures are under assault. A bill to alter tenure protections has just been submitted to the Maine legislature. Labeled "An Act to Create an Academic Bill of Rights," it is actually a prime instance of double speak: The title of the bill is a mask for its substance which infringes upon academic freedom by subjecting teaching practices and campus cultural programming to legislative oversight and private litigation. Anyone who considers course subject matter "controversial" and labels legitimate educative practices as "indoctrination" can seek redress. Opponents have identified this as part of the culture wars launched by Bush's neo-con cronies.

LD 1194 "An Act to Create an Academic Bills of Rights"

So in my opinion, instead of leveraging existing models, we should pave routes around them. Together with some UMaine colleagues and students, we have built a collaborative architecture called The Pool that offers a democratic trust network independent of the Ivory Tower peer-review system. So far we have used this beta system primarily to stimulate collaborative artworks and applications--an Art Pool--but lately it occurred to us that we could build a Text Pool to do the same for collaborative criticism.


In an academic context the possibility of tracking each individual contribution to a larger project may be interesting. In a way you can do this already at lists like nettime by searching a conversational thread in the archive. With the Text Pool you would get a similar, maybe better idea of the social construction of a text instead of just reading an article that states one author. Within a text you can just click on parts of it and see who contributed it-- you see the entire "author-stream."

TS: The site OpenTheory is a German equivalent to this. It takes the idea of free software to collaborative writing of theory.


JI: Great, I did not know about the OpenTheory site. There is certainly a burgeoning number of sites that apply a SourceForge-style interface to everything from cola recipes to missing person cases.


While The Pool includes version tracking like these sites, The Pool is based on a graphic interface rather than a linear inventory. In the primary interface, community ratings produce an emergent swarm of projects plotted according to their levels of approval and recognition.

Another Pool interface is a collaborative network grapher built by one of our students, Jeremy Knope. As with social network tools, you can graph the degrees of separation of different people, but in this case you can also see how they are related through collaborative projects.


When we showed The Pool to Jim Crutchfield at the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank for chaos theory and complexity science, he thought that this could be valuable in the research process because you may have no article in a journal for which you are the lead author but many works for which you played some role in the creation of other people's intellectual products. By the time your essay makes it into the New Media Reader, there is unfortunately no button you can click to list all the people who contributed to it or critiqued it on nettime. I think we really need structures that allow that kind of version history.

TS: How do you use these projects in an educational setting? How do projects such as The Art Pool or Text Pool compare to open courseware projects such as MIT's OpenCourseWare or Rice University's Connexions projects, Harvard's H2O project, Citeulike, or our Distributed Learning Project? If free access to art is the concern--well, the Rhizome ArtBase is free on Fridays. The Rhizome creators emphasized the social task of attracting people to an online tool over its technical complexity. Opening a room does not mean that people will come. You have to have a party with free beer for people join in. That was one of the things I learned from the collaborative work on Discordia. In addition, would not it be useful to link up the databases of projects with commonalities such Rhizome's ArtBase, Art Pool, and Neural?


http://discordia.us (archived)

JB: Most of the projects that you mention are about open access: MIT OpenCourseWare is about access to syllabi. People who are not paying tuition, who are not taking the courses can go in and get the syllabi. The same is true of Rhizome (on Fridays)--you can get access to art there. The Pool is not so much about mere access--it is about the process that brings people together, not just a one-way portal to get a project or a text. In the Pool you can review other people's projects and can potentially join them. The goal of the project is to break students and faculty out of the model of competitive work and into a kind of collaborative project that allows people to get individual credit.

JI: The Open Access movement is great. But there is a huge gap between a professor at MIT who shares his syllabus and that same professor saying, "I want to start a syllabus--does anybody care to help?" That is a big difference-- the open software movement is a much better model of production.

TS: Yes, MIT's market leadership is reinforced by their open courseware project whereas a small community college may not benefit as much from being open. Axel Bruns addressed this in a previous interview.

JB: MIT's openness is set up as one-way contribution. I cannot contribute resources to a syllabus. I cannot add to their version. Baudrillard addresses these ideas of reciprocity and interactivity. He claims that the media "are what always prevents response," and he reminds us that in 'primtive' societies, "power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid." This "disrupts the exchange to your profit" and I would add, to your power. That is precisely MIT's model. They can set the canon of culture.

When I was working at New York University, Blackboard was introduced for online courses. Professors had to put up their syllabi there so that the university could basically sell them after professors had left the institution. If my syllabus is online and nobody can contribute then I do not see much point of using this technology.


TS: This idea of resource sharing and collaborative syllabus creation is also at the core of the Distributed Learning Project (DLP) on which I work with Tom Leonhardt. It is in process but it is conceptual beginnings can be traced. It will hopefully be functional by mid-summer.


Earlier on Jon raised the question of the public domain and asked if academics still speak to it.

JB: Yes, it is really important to raise the question of what we contribute to the different kinds of public domains. Today, a person who wants to speak out needs tenure to protect themselves. But 200 years ago in this area a person did not need a legal contract to be able to speak their mind. The Native Americans had their talking circles where everybody was heard equally. Two weekends ago I attended a similar talking circle among the Passamaquoddy who are fighting to keep a Liquefied Natural Gas plant from destroying the last of their land. The model is one of listening deeply,
getting the pulse of the entire community, and then forming a consensus around which policy decisions are made that makes everyone feel they have had a part in the decision. Before everybody speaks issues are not even brought up. A plurality of views is welcome, is invited--this is seen as helping to expand the base for the formation of consensus.

Native American culture gives us a model for the commons also. We have to go back to pre-enclosure movements in England and other parts of Europe to get a memory of what the commons used to be: a grazing field for cattle, a piece of land that belonged to nobody and anybody where all could gather and hunt. Yet only a century ago, we still had examples of people who held land in common in the US. White settlers who wanted to buy land from Native Americans could not do so because native land held in common needed consensus by all to be re-appropriated. The Dawe's act of 1887 broke up that commons land and privatized it, at 40-100 acres per person. And during that time Native Americans lost about two-thirds of their land because individuals were bribed, some sold off their land is desperate poverty, other land was 'left over' and fell into government or private hands.

TS: Naomi Klein also addressed the commons in Windows and Fences-- "... the commons is being transformed and rearranged-- cut back, privatized, deregulated-- all in the name of participating and competing in the global trading system..."

JB: Yes, the point is when you privatize, the community loses its hold on land, air, water, genetic code and individuals become very vulnerable. The recent film "The Corporation" by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel Bakan looks at the tragic results of privatization. The results are toxic environments, global warming, poverty, dependence on governments and corporations, and fascist political systems. Naomi Klein connects this privatization to brand labeling in the film. The brand is a vision of ourselves produced by corporations.


The movement to get back to the commons is something very powerful for people. When the World Bank and Bechtel tried to privatize water rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia, people took to the streets demanding access to water as a public good, and they eventually prevailed. I would like to see that happen in Maine. The water I used to bottle for free as a child is now producing $60 million per year for Poland Springs.

How do we create or defend common spaces and public access in our field and in our world?

TS: There are many initiatives that counter the for-profit takeover online and off. Reclaim the Streets playfully creates and celebrates temporary public islands. The virtual city De Digitale Stad (DDS) offered reasonably priced 'access for all' in the mid-90s.


JI: The purpose of a talking circle is quite different from the net criticism you find on nettime or the art criticism you find on Rhizome. It is not a philosophical discussion like Code Zebra. It is meant to end in political action. That's something that may be a little closer to the blogging community, but bloggers tend to footnote each other rather than write in a truly collaborative fashion. Internet artist Eryk Salvaggio recently began the project "What Do We Stand For?" to channel this dispersed community of activists into collaborative decision-making. He wants to use the Pool's software toolkit to get people to generate a peer-reviewed policy statement. I find it very interesting that networks originally designed for artists or academics can be repurposed for political ends.



Jean Baudrillard, "Requiem for the Media", in The New Media Reader, Noah Wardrip-Fruon & Nick Montfort Eds. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2003

Nikolai Bezroukov, "Open Source Software Development as a Special Type of Academic Research"

Jessica Littman, Digital Copyright, Prometheus Books 2001

Alex Galloway,"Global Networks and the Effect on Culture", in Digital Production in a Digital Age, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol 597, Jan 2005.

Naomi Klein, "Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate", Random House October 2002

James F. Moore, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Still Water for network art & culture

Jon Ippolito is an artist, Guggenheim curator, and co-founder with Joline Blais of the Still Water program for network art and culture at the University of Maine where he is an Assistant Professor of New Media.

Fiction writer Joline Blais pioneered the development of the Media Studies program in SCPD at New York University, and is currently Assistant Professor of New Media at the University of Maine. She has a background in history and comparative literature at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania.

Posted by: ts | 2005-04-02 5:57:50 PM

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