The question isn’t “what is this picture about?” or even “what does it mean to you?” – but “given this picture, what shall we talk about?”

I’ve been working recently with Punch Records in Birmingham in a Knowledge Transfer capacity, to explore some theories about online and social media, and apply them to their music and arts activities.

I’m interested in the ways in which people use media online as “social objects” – that is, to take those objects and use them as the occasion for online conversation. And in doing so, people seem to make sense of those objects (whether they’re images, video or music) and recontextualise them in the service of whatever stories or conversations they’re trying to communicate.

One of the interesting things that Punch has been focused on recently, and launched last night at the Custard Factory here in BIrmingham, is an exhibition called Fight The Power, which presents images and posters of protest and propaganda. And one of the interesting things about the exhibition is that it’s designed to be experiential, rather than simply a display that you can quietly and passively consume.

Welcome to the exhibition

In this video, Ammo Talwar takes us around the exhibition and points out some of the key features – and the fact that you don’t simply look, but pick up and engage with some of the items. I think we can do more – and some of the ways we can do that are embedded in the way in which Punch have started to think about public access to works such as this.

Now, while it might not be especially new to make an exhibition immersive and engaging, they’ve incorporated that approach into the DNA of the event, and have adopted the term REMIXhibition to refer to that fact: you can pick up signs and objects, move them around within the exhibition, contribute your own thoughts on cards – and even take some objects away from the exhibition and display in your own home or street.

I’m interested in extending these ideas by taking the essence of the REMIXhibition idea, and applying it to the online environment. To my mind, and based on the research, it would appear that the digital space is the perfect extension of something conceived of as a REMIXhibition.

So in short, my experiment is to take the content and the experience of the Fight The Power, and explore and demonstrate ways of presenting it online in a way that can picked up and used by other people to remix and represent in their own way.

There are several key theorists that are informing this work. Underlying much of what I do is the work of Marshall McLuhan, who has written a great deal about the nature of media, and what happens when one medium contextualises another. Clearly similarly influenced by McLuhan is Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid) whose work on remix culture and the new media environment is right at the intersection between my work on music and social media, and the creative and social/political work of Punch Records.

A head nod needs to go to Jyri Engeström, who is credited with the development of the idea of media as social objects, and there is a good deal of work from the fields of Media Ecology and contemporary cultural and communication theorists such as Sean Cubitt and Nancy Kaplan that lies buried within this very simple piece of exploratory practice-based-research.

Of course, you can’t write a recipe for this – and you can’t mandate a ‘viral’ response to a media artefact, no matter how you present it. I can make all of the content available for sharing on Flickr (and here’s a set of pictures to get you started) – but actually, for this to work, it has to work organically. Someone has to take a picture (or whatever) and think “This is interesting – and it makes me think about X. I have something to say about that.”

So I think a middle way is worth exploring. I’m going to invite bloggers and creative artists – musicians, and so on – to take an image, a slogan or a sign – and respond to it. And my question is as simple as “what do you want to talk about?”

I’ll also be using Punch’s existing contacts to extend these conversations out to a wider constituency – but the invitation is completely open. If you want to use these images and ideas, video and slogans as a springboard to remix, repurpose, and recontextualise – that is essentially the experiment.

To be clear – the purpose is not promotional. It’s not an effort designed to get more people through the door at the exhibition. The purpose is to take the exhibition – and the kinds of cultural impacts that it aspires to, and putting them out into the wider world.

There is, of course, an intellectual property dimension to this experiment. I have an assurance from Punch that the use of the images for this purpose are acceptable, and that ‘quoting’ the images in blog posts is authorised (though of course, these are web-quality scans, and not commercially-exploitable high resolution images). But in fact, using an image like the one above from the Guardian might be an interesting leaping off point for a discussion about the nature of copyright.

The point is – here are some challenging and often troubling images and themes – and there is nothing more prone to start a conversation than something that has an element of controversy to it.

Fight the Power

There are works from all over the world – including a good number from South Africa. There are some amazing pieces of art in the mix. The best thing that could happen to it both online and in the exhibition space itself, is for people to engage with it – remix it.

But there are also images that are not simply scans of the exhibited works, but ‘social objects’ that arise from the simple fact that the exhibition is taking place.

For example, the above photo was taken at the launch, and features Nicky from Digbeth is Good, camera in hand and standing not too far away from a poster that says ‘Solidarity with our sisters in South Africa’. Is there a discussion there to be had? Are bloggers like Nicki, who focus on the local and the personal also thereby engaged more deeply in the global and political? It’s a starter for 10.

I’ve posted some of these photos to the Fight the Power Facebook group – as well as images on Flickr and video on Vimeo – and perhaps a discussion will lead on from that.

You can be reasonably certain that if it does, it will be a conversation that you can neither anticipate nor control – and in a way, my point is that you shouldn’t attempt to either.

Fortunately, what Punch Records are interested in with this exhibition is about dissemination of the issues and ideas out to a broader constitutency – to have them explored, dissected, reflected upon and discussed – and not simply about getting numbers of people through the door. They have a PR person for that.

I’ll be working with Punch to develop these ideas, to start to think about the content of this (and other Punch projects) as atomisable components that can be separated out, divorced from their original context and bounced around the internet as social objects and memes, and not simply as a simple signifier with a direct and concrete ‘signified’.

You can take this as a sign

The internet is not a broadcast medium – and nor is it a ‘revolutionized’ older medium.

It is instead a conversational space – and there are two main categories of object within that space: the conversation, and the things about which the conversation is taking place. By repositioning exhibited works and media artefacts that spring from that exhibition as individual and decontextualised social objects, the aim is to provoke conversation within that space.

And within this one. Watch this space.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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