Interconnections: Cultural industries in the 21st century

As we approach the New Year of 2011, bringing the first decade of the 21st century to a close, it is natural for us to ponder our changing times. The opening chapter of the book The Cultural Industries (2007) by David Hesmondhalgh – one of the assigned readings in the UOC postgraduate course on cultural innovation – provides an interesting perspective from which to consider the transformations taking place in the industry of creating and distributing art.

I would like to illustrate how LABoral, the art and industrial creation center in Gijόn, is emblematic of these changes.

Hesmondhalgh writes of change in the management and circulation of symbolic creativity – a much broader category than just the arts, also including “the invention and/or performance of stories, songs, images, poems, jokes and so on, in no matter what technological form… a particular type of creativity – the manipulation of symbols for the purposes of entertainment, information and perhaps even enlightenment” (Hesmondhalgh 4). From ancient times through the Renaissance, patronage was the dominant commercial system, determining not only how artists were remunerated but how their work was made publicly accessible. The cultural industries began to emerge when this was replaced by the market system, requiring corporate intermediaries between created content and public consumption. This emergence became properly industrial only with the advent of large-scale production and distribution technologies.

According to Hesmondhalgh, cultural production only becomes industry when contemporary technologies have been incorporated, taking advantage of the possibilities they offer for the creation, commercialization, distribution and promotion of cultural content. For this reason, he includes artistic forms such as writing (print and electronic publishing), music and even film amongst the core cultural industries, alongside broadcasting, internet content, videogames and advertising (Hesmondhalgh 12-13). But the art world is only a peripheral cultural industry due to what he calls its “semi-industrial or non-industrial methods” (ibid).

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It is true that the new generation of art centers cannot pretend to function on the same industrial level as corporate goliaths such as Disney. However, the success of centres such as ZKM, in Karlsruhe, or Hangar, in Barcelona, (as well as their name brands) shows a new trend. A closer examination of a current example such as LABoral will reveal that many of the features ascribed to core cultural industries are now starting to become permanent features of the contemporary art economy.

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The cultural industries make and circulate texts. “All cultural artefacts are texts in the very broad sense that they are open to interpretation” (ibid). Cars, for example, are functional devices. But they are also expressions of personality and identity. The balance struck between function and meaning (e.g. car as transport versus car as status symbol) will determine how much something is readable as text. Cultural content tends to be light on function but highly interpretive and communicative.

LABoral’s line of programming is marked by the pursuit of new narratives. Alongside a fascination for technological culture and its dissemination, LABoral is always conscious of the way our reading of cultural texts infuses our view of society and transforms it. To cite merely one example, LABoral’s own exhibition on the automobile – Auto. Dream and Matter (2009) – took the interpretation of the car as far from function as possible, exploring the relationship between car culture and artistic creativity.

Cultural management reaches industrial levels when technology dramatically reduces the cost of reproduction and/or distribution. Prints, for example, allow copies of paintings and sculptures to be widely distributed at a relatively low cost. However, with the advent of the internet, the cost of reproduction, dissemination and access to cultural content becomes negligible. There is no doubt that site-specific pieces and installations still form the core of the artistic experience. But all of LABoral’s activities are thoroughly documented in the archive, publicly accessible through the web site. LABoral has also launched its own internet television channel, LABtv, which is not only an expansion of the reproduction and distribution capacities of the center but will provide a platform for new modes of artistic expression.

Multisector and multimedia integration is another characteristic of core cultural industries. Today, different stages of the process of production and circulation are concentrated and incorporated, maximising strategies and investments from various sectors. LABoral has followed this line of consolidation. With investments by the CTIC Foundation and Alcoa, LABoral houses the cReaTic Laboratory: a space equipped for technological experimentation and creativity, investing in the skills and human resources of the region of Asturias. In addition, this month of December, LABoral opened FABlab: a digital design and production center with the technology needed to facilitate the passage from creative design to prototype. Both are examples of new technologies amplifying production potential to industrial levels.

Cultural industries tend to be a risky business (most fail in the first few years) requiring large corporate investment and the development of an extensive repertoire (seeking the elusive blockbuster success). Corporate consolidation is therefore required, such as can be seen in the composition of the Board of Directors of LABoral art center, which includes representatives of public bodies (such as the federal Ministry of Culture, the regional ministry of the Principality of Asturias and the local Gijόn city hall) as well as private interests (HC Energía, Fundaciόn Telefόnica). (The extensive repertoire of LABoral’s exhibitions can be found here.)

Finally, I would like to point out that these historical and societal changes – from cultural production to industry – have also come along with changes in the form of artistic expression itself. According to Hesmondhalgh, cultural industries are agents of change. Their texts “have an influence on our thinking about their operations, about all other industries and, indeed, about all aspects of life” (Hesmondhalgh 23). In the case of contemporary technological art, the effects not only reach the production and circulation of art objects but they alter our very idea of what art can be, thereby changing the very question of what production or circulation might mean.

As an example, LABoral collaborated with artist Cristian Bettini on the project Donkijote.org, which was a mixture between art installation, virtual cartography and performance. The artist traveled with his donkey across Asturias, collecting local stories and legends, recording and transmitting experiences, connecting to the internet with completely portable (and ecologically powered) ICT devices, disseminating ideas about innovative uses for technology as well as a new interpretation of the Don Quijote myth and its message for contemporary society.

Here, the traditional contrast of “original art work” versus “mechanical reproduction” is no longer applicable. The art is equivalent to its mass distribution. The journey taken by the artist and his animal became the artistic performance in and through its live broadcast via communication technologies. There was an installation at LABoral, as well as a web site, but these are not copies of the original project: they are multiple dimensions of the same artistic event, developed in real time. In this case, technologies have not only eased the problem of distribution; they have eliminated it altogether.

This, like so many other examples, shows how these new technologies are provoking interesting transformations in the art industry of the 21st century, shifting away from the semi-industrial model of copy distribution and opening up new horizons of creative possibility.

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