Creating Commons for Digital Inclusion

By Jax Deluca

From Americas Cultural Summit.JPG

Group of people posing in front of media screens.

NEA Media Arts Director Jax Deluca (third from left) at the Americas Cultural Summit. Photo by Manuel Sousa, Canada Council on the Arts

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the Americas Cultural Summit, a first-time-ever gathering of funders, artists, entrepreneurs, and government officials to exchange ideas and share best practices to advance public support for arts and culture as part of building vibrant, prosperous and inclusive societies. On behalf of the NEA, I curated a panel titled Cultural Connectors: Creating Commons for Digital Inclusion, featuring four international artists examining the topic of inclusivity, equity, and justice within emerging art and technological forms.

Each artist shared a common thread of maintaining an artistic practice intimately connected with community-based education. For example, M. Laura Ruggiero’s Storyhackers lab empowers underrepresented voices by splicing new narratives into the mainstream. Amor Muñoz teaches Yucatan communities how to build and incorporate solar-powered textiles into garments as a utilitarian and artistic social intervention. Michèle Stephenson previewed a new virtual reality project (currently in production) that provides space for users to unpack an insufficiently acknowledged history of racial inequities and imagine a destiny of healing through truth and reconciliation for our collective humanity. And Taeyoon Choi’s art practice widens accessibility, including for those in the disability community, to the world of creative coding through the School for Poetic Computation.

The panel was orchestrated to demonstrate that there is no one size fits all approach to addressing digital inclusion. However, all too often, we look to the larger technology industry to provide localized community solutions. Hopefully, this was successful in providing evidence that the most practical and usable solutions come from everyday people working in their respective communities. The panel also served as a reminder for cultural leaders to consider more holistic approaches to digital inclusivity and further investment in their local artists as a resource to mediate the space between technology and marginalized communities.

This brings me to what’s on my mind lately: Who sets the parameters for appropriate applications of technology? Just because new technology exists doesn’t mean we have to use everything all the time. It would be impractical to think in such way, not to mention propagate a countering narrative to the emphasis on inclusion. At one point in time, the fabrication of a paintbrush would have been considered new technology for artists. As technology increasingly becomes an extension of ourselves, we have to recognize that this relationship, between technology and ourselves, is continually evolving.

There is space for old and new; high tech and low tech. We were careful to note this in our current Media Arts funding guidelines. Sometimes the simplest interventions are the most effective ones. The rapidly accelerating prevalence of digital technologies now lends itself to new ways of creating, producing, and distributing works in the contemporary arts world and beyond. It’s an entirely new ecosystem to learn and understand. It cuts across all artistic disciplines in various layers and involves a complex relationship with industries in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.

Therefore, remembering how digital technology fits within the new artist toolbox is essential. Technology is a tool, so it our responsibility, as cultural leaders in the public sector, to be knowledgeable about the challenges, the needs, and the opportunities facing the arts and cultural field at large. This includes taking the time to unpack the many layers of digital inequities existing within each of our communities.

How can we, at the National Endowment for the Arts, as public funders better support artists and also help inform the private sector? This is a critical time, as it is a precarious environment for the pioneering artists experimenting with emerging technologies, particularly for those producing artworks in immersive media and creative code. There is a common misconception that these artists are well-funded. However it’s mostly by way of technical support from technology industry partners and a limited number of funding opportunities open to supporting such work. I’m optimistic that the more legwork we at the NEA can do to better understand this new ecosystem, by forming new relationships and providing research and educating others about how to support initiatives at this intersection, the more we can help move the dial on this.

On that note, if you have thoughts on this topic or if we can be of assistance in helping you navigate any of the above, feel free to let me know. We look forward to acting as a key resource on these topics for the contemporary arts and cultural field. Together, we can ensure that the cultural fabric of the future has everyone in it!