themes / Wikianarchy

Braving the Torrential Rain: Artists Online

Łukasz Orbitowski

I clearly remember a time when using a computer – and later, the internet – involved a visit to a friend’s house. Today, I can browse the Web on my own cell phone. As the structure that is the internet continues to grow, floor by floor, we stand aside, baffled by what lies ahead.

I’m sitting at home, typing on my computer keyboard. As soon as this article is published on the appropriate website, I’ll let my readers know via my personal blog and Facebook profile. I skimmed through the file sharing sites half an hour ago, punching my own name into the search box on every page. The titles of most of my books came up in the results. As I refuse to have some of them re-issued, I also forfeit any right to be angered by such public access to my work. Nor am I in the slightest bit vexed that my latest titles aren’t just available at the bookstore. Download them to your heart’s content.

The issues of copyright and its scope, as well as the proliferation of new media, pose new challenges for the artist, if only nominally. My own mode of work hasn’t changed one bit. But the separation of the text from any particular medium – enabling the written word to freely flow between the page, the smartphone, and the computer – smacks a bit of revolution. Is it as subversive as Gutenberg’s famous invention? Only time will tell. After all, even the father of movable type failed to recognize the historical significance of his idea.

I enjoy the comfort of speaking from experience, fueled in part by skepticism and enthusiasm, my stubbornness, and my years as an active author and journalist (in other words: a professional ignoramus).

We’re living in a new world, one that we have yet to fully comprehend. I wouldn’t describe myself as old, but I clearly remember a time when the only media available to me were books, videotapes, and vinyl LPs pressed by Polskie Nagrania. I was fortunate enough to witness the successive stages of this great change: the proliferation of computers and the evolution of the CD-R into the transitional format that was the DVD-R, before finally giving us the user-friendly USB flash drive. Using a computer – and later, the internet – involved a visit to a friend’s house; a dial-up connection was much too expensive for everyday use. Today, I can browse the Web on my own cell phone. As the structure that is the internet continues to grow, floor by floor, we stand aside, baffled by what lies ahead.

Internet phenomena evolve at a greater speed than the multinationals and lawmakers would like, striking occasional panic in their ranks. Artists have also found themselves in a new setting, one that I would describe as more beneficial, but then again, maybe all these novelties will go the way of the dodo and we’ll go back to our trusty pencils, fountain pens, and Underwood typewriters.

Have Facebook and Twitter become a necessity to the artist? In other words, have new media introduced a new form of coercion: you’re either with us, or you don’t exist?

Mark Zuckerberg may be as smart as the TV and as sinister as Satan, but I doubt he could ever wipe Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy off the cultural map of the world.
He’s not even a match for Rylski, Świetlicki, and Rymkiewicz (but their websites are run by fans, so they don’t count).

The ego of the artist online

The true relevance of internet novelties eludes us, and we fail to grasp the effect they have. This is knowledge that will come with time, carried by the owl of Minerva with the falling of dusk. One’s presence on Facebook (or absence therefrom) may one day become something of a manifesto, an unequivocal action stripped of its randomness. What do we do then? We choose sides and go about our business. Servitude is an inherent part of being an artist, implanted like microchips in the minds of future humans. Creators have bowed before the likes of the Church, Hitler, Stalin, and even liberal democracy (I list these without passing judgment), and as soon as we realize this simple truth, it becomes apparent that a few clicks of the mouse are hardly a steep price to pay.

Facebook and Twitter lend themselves particularly well to the personality of the artist. The wise and prudent user takes care not to publish too much information about himself, and especially about his private life. You never know who might find that information useful, and for what purposes. Before you tell me to remove my tinfoil hat, think back to all the love affairs that saw the light of day thanks to social networking slip-ups.

Artists have a tendency to behave like idiots due to their exhibitionist nature; to them, the world of Web 2.0 is like a green pasture to a famished cow.

I have no doubts that this new opportunity for self-exposure with bear new forms of art. Perhaps this art has already been born and formalized. Facebook provides endless opportunities for promotion. I’m referring to my fellow writers, whose Facebook friends number in the thousands. This sorted and cataloged lot virtually begs for first-hand promotion. These friends receive more than just updates on new releases, they are given a chance to stay in touch with the artist himself. It’s a great opportunity for grassroots marketing and a number of other techniques, considering Facebook’s massive growth amidst the death throes of Myspace. Anything can be promoted there: why not art? Examples of such cases abound.

What remains a mystery is the exact methods used for such self-promotion. In other words, artists have stepped into a virgin land, full of opportunities. What opportunities? Even if I knew, I would guard the secret as jealously as a dragon watches over its mountain of gold. The publishers, at least, have yet to figure out what they’re dealing with. Publishing houses and record companies have displayed great lethargy in this regard. An up-and-coming artist backed by a small, efficient company will have no trouble getting ahead of them.

Theft without losses

The issue of copyright and its ubiquitous infringement is one that I feel very strongly about, and it’s high time that I admit to participating in this supposedly illicit activity. The sheer intensity of the anti-piracy campaign only serves to strengthen my convictions.
I was born in Poland; I listened to punk rock, and therefore I automatically sympathize with the downtrodden and those who risk oppression for any number of reasons. If some Goliath with his head in the clouds demands millions of dollars in damages from Davids running P2P software, biblical wisdom tells me to hand the underdog a sling and throw myself to the ground in search of sharp rocks.

This spontaneous, unconscious reaction has only grown more intense thanks to the rhetoric of those who oppose free file-swapping on the internet and who purportedly act in my name. It has become common practice to refer to piracy as theft. This “theft” is bizarre in that nothing is actually taken from the alleged victim.

If I were to download an album of my favorite songs by P!nk, I would be no less than absolutely certain that not a single copy of the record had disappeared from store shelves, warehouses, distributors, or even the private safe of the CEO of Sony.

If piracy isn’t theft, then what is it? Well, piracy is precisely that: piracy, just like theft is not murder, rape, or armed robbery. Only when we agree upon this basic assumption can we attempt any discussion of the various moral, cultural, and legal implications of the phenomenon.

This confusion in terminology has resulted in an even more bizarre phenomenon. In their own opinion, the defenders of the status quo have been given the magical power of foreseeing the strange vicissitudes of fortune.

How else are we to explain the idiotic assumption that a person who swiped P!nk off of BitTorrent would have, under any other circumstances, purchased the record?

Nevertheless, this assumption continues to serve as the basis for lawsuits recognized by fair and impartial courts in the West. Some have even attempted subtle forms of blackmail by sending financial demands to internet users alleged to have stolen something (IP addresses prove nothing). The Polish software company CD Projekt recently announced plans to implement similar procedures, as a result of which I have decided not to buy “The Witcher 2,” even if it means playing table football for the rest of my life.

Terror and torrents

Let’s not forget the real-world implications of the free exchange of culture. We have been warned that piracy will discourage artists from creating new work, and yet we see increasingly expensive movies being made, video game development budgets swelling, and music being recorded by practically everyone. The unfortunate victim of piracy has been art-house cinema and avant-garde film of all types. I could just say “Tough luck,” but I won’t. I’d rather not think about how much movies and records would cost if it weren’t for the limiting effect that piracy has on prices. It may be a modest effect, and one spread out over time, but it has made it possible to buy a good film on DVD for under 10 euros. This miracle has largely bypassed the publishing industry, mainly because most of us aren’t that keen on reading our books off of a computer screen. The proliferation of e-readers will change that, and as an author, I don’t expect this shift to have much of a draining effect on my wallet.

The copyright debate, whether it is about easing restrictions or busting freeloaders, revolves around the issue of money.

This central theme is plainly visible in what I‘ve written here, and I would agree that, compared to mammon, culture is no more than an afterthought. Let’s focus on this detail. I recently saw a movie titled “Global Metal,” made by the Canadian anthropologist Sam Dunn. The film tells the story of heavy metal fans from all corners of the globe, including those in the Muslim countries of the Middle East, where metal, along with almost all western pop-culture, is banned. Fans can’t buy records and t-shirts, and western bands aren’t allowed to perform. Locals interviewed by Dunn openly admit that downloading music illegally off the internet is their only option. If it weren’t for piracy, they would be stuck listening to the wailing of the muezzins.

Fans of Lady Gaga and Almodóvar face the same problems. Dunn then paid a visit to Lars Ulrich of Metallica, a group that famously contributed to the ultimate demise of Napster.

Ulrich admits, albeit indirectly, that he may have taken his anti-piracy crusade a bit too far, and that he sympathizes with his Arab fans who download music illegally.

We’re not a part of Arab culture, and I have seen practically no attempts to censor culture. But we are relatively poor, and this state of affairs is unlikely to improve in the near future, even if Poland continues to glow an ever-brighter shade of green amidst Europe’s sea of red. Culture, a dispensable expense, is the lowest priority in the budgets of citizens of every country in the world. I would argue, however, that Americans and Germans still have better financial prospects in this regard.

I know perfectly well that studios and corporations are losing tons of cash to piracy. I can live with that. What I want is for people in Poland not to be any dumber than they would be in New York or London, by which I mean that their access to culture should be equal or, if possible, better. In other words, I would like Kazio from Sanok and Baśka from Białystok to watch films, listen to music, read books, and play games (I treat these phenomena on an equal footing) as much as they can. And if Warner and Paramount have to take a hit for that to happen, so be it.

An easy revolution?

In a sense, today’s copyfighters resemble yesterday’s revolutionaries attempting to tear down the existing social hierarchies in order to build a better world. Swap out the greedy capitalists for multinational corporations, make the setting an online forum instead of a clandestine apartment, and you’re all set. The scale, of course, is much smaller, and the demand for changes in social structure has been limited to a single issue. Culture as a common good harks back to Marx’s idea of collectivism; an old, seemingly defunct concept has regained its meaning in a new context.

Left-leaning youth have focused their efforts on an issue that is (let’s be honest) far from our greatest concern. The struggle is very consuming, and I’m convinced that it will be a while before they achieve their goals. I hope they won’t have the strength for any more activism once it’s over.

I fear that these same revolutionaries, were someone to deprive them of the opportunity to defend their precious torrents, would pick a more relevant cause, such as the economy, the environment, providing equal opportunities, or completely changing the world.

I can live without file sharing, but I’m worried about rioting and would rather environmentalists not stand in the way of highway construction. I’d rather they just sit in front of their computers.

I’m still at a loss as to whether everything will be alright or not. I’m trying to grow accustomed to the unoriginal idea that the world, the virtual one as well, is heading towards a better future.
But I’m open to the possibility that I’m mistaken. Piracy will destroy culture at every level.

Social networking will make ersatz interpersonal relationships the new standard. The efforts of Wikileaks and their imitators will disrupt the global balance of power. That could happen, and I could just as well be struck dead by a drunk driver on my way to the store. Only time will uncover the meaning of the changes we are experiencing today.

Translated by Arthur Barys