[-empyre-] Creativity as a Social Ontology

[Image: Creative Land: Place And Procreation On The Rai Coast Of Papua New Guinea by James Leach] July on empyre soft-skinned space: Creativity as a social ontology :: Moderated by Simon Biggs (UK/Australia) with invited discussants Eugenio Tisselli (Mexico/Spain), Helen Varley Jamieson (New Zealand/UK), James Leach (UK), Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (USA/UK), Ruth Catlow (UK), Magnus Lawrie (UK), Scott Rettberg (Norway/USA).

Simon Biggs wrote: Dear empyre subscribers,

Creativity is often perceived as a product of individual, or group, creative activity. However, it might also be considered an emergent phenomenon of communities, driving change and facilitating individual and ensemble creativity. Expanded concepts of agency allow us to question who, or what, can be an active participant in creative social interactions, providing diverse models for authorship. Creativity might be regarded as social interaction in reflexive mediation.

How might we understand creativity as interaction, as sets of discursive relations? Creativity can be a performative activity released when engaged through and by a community. In this context the model of the solitary artist, who produces artefacts which embody creativity, can be questioned as an ideal for achieving creative outcomes. Creativity can be proposed as an activity of exchange that enables (creates) people and communities.

In his book Creative Land, anthropologist James Leach (one of this month’s guests) describes cultural practices where the creation of new things, and the ritualised forms of exchange (the performative) enacted around them, function to “create” individuals and their social relations, “creating” the community they inhabit. Leach’s argument suggests it is possible to conceive of creativity as emergent from and innate to the interactions of people. Such an understanding functions to combat instrumentalist views of creativity that demand it have social (e.g.: “economic”) value. Creativity need not be valued as satisfying a perceived need nor need it be romantically situated as a supply-side “blue skies” ideal. An alternate model can be proposed where creativity is considered an emergent property of community; an ontology.

Does the internet, the networks of people it facilitates and the communities that emerge through it, render these processes more explicit than they might otherwise appear? Does the internet facilitate the creation of communities where new modalities of creativity, authorship and exchange emerge? Do online communities, such as Furtherfield, 7-11, Nettime and empyre, present models and insights for novel social relations and creativity?

During the month of July we will discuss the issues that relate to these questions concerning creativity and community. Our guests are:

Eugenio Tisselli (Mexico/Spain): Born in Mexico City, 1972. Writer and programmer. Areas of interest include artistic software, social technologies and digital narratives. His work (installation, performance, software and text) has been featured in many publications, festivals and exhibitions around the world. He collaborates regularly with artist Antoni Abad at He was an associate researcher at Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris and is currently co-director of the Master in Digital Arts at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Helen Varley Jamieson (New Zealand) is a writer, theatre practitioner and digital artist from New Zealand, currently based in Europe. She holds a Master of Arts (research) in cyberformance – live performance on the internet – a form of networked performance which she has developed and presented internationally for over a decade. Helen is a founding member of the globally-dispersed cyberformance troupe Avatar Body Collision; project manager of UpStage, an open source web-based cyberformance platform; has co-curated online festivals involving artists and audiences around the world; and is the “web queen” of the Magdalena Project, an international network of women in theatre.

James Leach (UK) is a Social Anthropologist. His areas of interest centre on creativity, innovation, intellectual property and on knowledge exchange across cultures, disciplines and contexts. Building on long term fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, recent work has drawn understandings and relationships from that region into research on free software, interdisciplinary collaborations, the design of technological objects and choreography. James is currently Professor and Head of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen.

Kriss Ravetto-Biagioli (USA/UK/Italy) is an Associate Professor at the University of Edinburgh in Film Studies. She is the author of The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics, and has published articles on digital and performance art, modernism, feminism, nationalism, representations of violence and post-socialist cinema. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled Mythopoetic Cinema at The Margins of Europe.

Ruth Catlow (UK) is an artist and curator working at the intersection of art, technology and social change. As co-founder, with Marc Garrett, of, a grass roots media arts organisation, online community and HTTP Gallery in North London, she works with international DIY artists, hackers, curators, musicians, programmers, writers, activists and thinkers. Her current focus is on practices that engage an ecological approach featuring an interest in the interrelation of technological and natural processes. Ruth has been involved with developing networked participatory arts infrastructures such as VisitorsStudio and NODE.London. Ruth has worked in Higher Education for over 15 years and is currently running degrees in Digital Art and Design Practice and developing a new MA in Fine Art and Environment at Writtle School of Design.

Magnus Lawrie (UK) has, over the past 15 years, been involved in creative and politically motivated urban communities in the UK, Germany and Spain. This engagement has resulted from a peripatetic lifestyle and an interest in grassroots action deriving from his background in visual arts (BA & MFA Fine Art 1991-97), DIY culture and – by a circuitous route – web design, programming, systems administration, GNU/Linux and Free Software. In September 2010 Magnus will begin a doctoral research studentship at Edinburgh College of Art as part of the pan-European Electronic Literature as a Model for Creativity and Innovation in Practice (ELMCIP) project.

Scott Rettberg (Norway/USA) is a Chicago native who now lives in Norway. He writes, and writes about, new media and electronic literature. Rettberg is co-founder of the Electronic Literature Organization. His work is widely published, including by MIT Press, The Iowa Review Web and the Electronic Book Review. He was co-editor with N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, and Stephanie Strickland of the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume One. He is an associate professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen.

Simon Biggs
Research Professor Edinburgh College of Art
Creative Interdisciplinary Research into CoLlaborative Environments
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice
Centre for Film, Performance and Media Arts
Edinburgh College of Art (eca) is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC009201.

Eugenio Tisselli Vélez wrote:

Dear all,

First, let me thank Simon and Renate for inviting me, I’m very excited to be part of this month’s discussion at empyre.

Please allow me to be straightforward: lately I have grown quite wary of the idea of creativity itself. If I look at it in its traditional sense, as the act of producing something from out of nothing, I find that there is too much theological “background noise” in it. My suspicion surrounding creativity stronlgy developed after reading George Steiner’s book “Grammars of creation” (2001), which starts out in an amazing way by saying that “we have no more beginnings left”. Throughout the book, Steiner argues that our western vision of the act of creation is deeply rooted in religion; in the idea of the Platonic demiurge, who fashions the material world out of chaos. Seen from a contemporary perspective, this original idea seems almost unsustainable. At some point, Steiner proposes that instead of considering our acts as being creative, we should see them as being inventive, suggesting that we actually make new things only by assembling and manipulating their constituent elements, which already existed before. Of course, Steiner was not the first one to question the idea of the artist as a creator: we only need to turn towards the well-known “objet trouvé”. So, the artist as inventor may cause the solitary artist that Simon mentions in his introduction to crumble under his/her own weight, for an artist is never solitary even if working in isolation. The artefacts produced will necessarily be polyphonic, and will contain the echo of those who came before and provided the raw materials, however hidden they may be: the multiple beats within the singular.

Nevertheless, I am willing to accept a contemporary idea of creativity that is detached from its Greek-Latin roots, and which necessarily implies the interweaving of collective threads in innovative ways. I would like to address one of Simon’s questions, “How might we understand creativity as interaction, as sets of discursive relations?”, by refering to Bruno Latour’s book, “Reassembling the social”. In his book, Latour points out that we should not view “the social” as a given entity which exists per se, but rather as something that is continuously re-created (or re-invented) through the multiple interactions of its actors. I largely agree with this vision, but I find that this continuous re-making of the social is not necessarily a creative act. Everywhere we may find groups of people immersed in an array of constant interrelations, from which all sorts of destructive actions can emerge. I believe that creativity emerges from individuals and their social relations (physical or virtual) only when the interaction among them is focused constructively, and is based on the idea of a common good, mutual trust and shared engagement. Emergent communities whose relations are mediated by digital networks may find their creative potential increased quantitatively, in terms of number of individuals, and qualitatively because of their diversity, but I think that building and maintaining trust and engagement within them becomes particularly important, as these networks tend to promote rather detached/ephemeral (“just a click away”) modes of interrelation.

Just a few general thoughts to start off…

Looking forward to hearing from you!


Helen Varley Jamieson wrote:

hi everyone,

thank you simon & renate for the invitation to be part of this discussion, & thanks eugenio for starting things off : )

speaking as a live performance/theatre artist, i’m also of the opinion that creativity doesn’t happen in isolation or on our own; we are always building on what has gone before. in this sense, creativity can be understood as interaction & conversation, or even a translation (interpretation) … my work is pretty much always dialogic, it is a creative exchange between performer(s) & audience in a shared moment (whether we are physically or virtually present, the time is shared).

to begin to respond to simon’s questions, in particular “Does the internet facilitate the creation of communities where new modalities of creativity, authorship and exchange emerge?”, i’ll give as an example one of the projects that i’ve been involved with since 2003: the online cyberformance platform UpStage. the project began with the practical needs/desires of four artists, & over the years a thriving community has evolved around it. there are about 50 artists currently working with UpStage to create performances for the annual festival (& there might well be others using UpStage who i don’t know about), around 300 on the mailing list, & it’s used in educational situations from primary school through to universities. there is a small ongoing developer community as well.

one aspect of the UpStage community that particularly delights me is the emergence of cross-collaboration between the artists; four of the 19 performances selected for this year’s festival involve collaborations between artists who have met through UpStage (& mostly have not met in the flesh). this is similar to my experience with Avatar Body Collision – we came together through online networks & still have not all met, 8 years & 10 performances later. this kind of remote collaboration is not so unusual today, but what’s different with UpStage is the wider context – the ongoing interaction is not only between collaborating artists but also between artists, developers & audience – there is the sense that we are all cross-pollinating at several levels of creation – the performances, the software, & the community. each of these three things is being created by, & contributing to the creation of, the other two in a very organic (ontological?) way.

to pick up on eugenio’s reference to trust – trust is central/essential both to communities and to theatre/performance. establishing trust is something that proximal (i.e. not online) theatre ensembles usually do at the start of a project if the members don’t already know each other – playing games to build familiarity & a sense of connection between the individuals (i.e., community). any sort of live performance requires trust between the players – from trusting that your co-actor will remember their lines, to the confidence that your trapeze partner will catch you & not let you fall to the ground. online, trust takes on a new significance. working remotely with people you’ve never met & know little about can require a risky leap of trust, but one that has to be taken. we also have to place enormous trust in technologies, at the same time as knowing that the internet is an unstable environment …

hmm; i’m not quite sure how to tie that all back into the original questions, but i’ll send this now anyway as i’ve just been handed 5 bamboo stakes which are desperately needed by some rampant tomato plants on the balcony …

h : )

(skipped a few posts)

Kevin Hamilton wrote:

Hello all –

Thanks to Simon for framing this discussion so well. Starting with ontology over epistemology is a great place to go, so I look forward to the coming month.

For now, I’ll just contribute a few quotes and examples in response to the threads so far.

First – in relation to comments about religion – one might just as readily look to the process of secularization when looking for creativity’s problematic heritage. For the 2007 MyCreativity conference in Holland, Marion von Osten described creativity’s modern emergence as a social obligation, linking it to individual freedom as a compulsory part of living in a capitalist economy:

“On the one hand, then, creativity shows itself to be the democratic variant of genius: the ability to be creative is bestowed on everyone. On the other hand everyone is required to develop her/his creative potential…The subjects comply with these new relations of power apparently by free will. In Nikolas Rose’s terms, they are ‘obliged to be free’, urged to be mature, autonomous and responsible for themselves..” (

Where religions situated creativity within ritual and processual fantasy, secularism gave us individual compulsory creativity as an economic instrument – complete with mechanisms for reflexivity. Collective creativities are just as susceptible to this. Growing interest in collective creation is as likely as any a sign of modern subjectivity’s transformation during late capital. Newfield and Rayner wrote about the growing interest in collectivism and self-organization among management theorists:

“In the idealised view of its advocates, the learning organisation is a mobile, self-deconstructing system, perfectly suited to the unstable environments of “post-industrial” or “informational” capitalism….The practical question for contemporary management and human resources (HR) theorists is how to create the kinds of workers that are capable of accumulating tacit knowledge and using it in the service of the organisation.” (

So how do we attend to creativity’s ontology as a condition of being social, without ending up with just another form of instrumentalized “freedom?”

I find some hope in looking to the role of ontology in epistemologies of individual creative action. Sociologist Norbert Elias provided one of my favorite descriptions of creativity:

“The pinnacle of artistic creation is achieved when the spontaneity and inventiveness of the fantasy-stream are so fused with knowledge of the regularities of the material and the judgement of the artist’s conscience that the innovative fantasies emerge as if by themselves in a way that matches the demands of both material and conscience. This is one of the most socially fruitful types of sublimation process.”

I love this description because it accounts for fantasy/desire, the limits of perception, and the fact that the material into which we work is just more regular than we are. Translate this into a discussion of group creativity, and things get very interesting.

It’s also why I keep hacking at the tired rhetoric of creativity in my institutional home. Where I used to roll my eyes and wait for the meeting/lecture to be over (ever sat through a talk by Daniel Pink?), I now look for the inevitable limits against which the fantasies of neoliberal creative economies must hit. The Floridians don’t know their material – they are bad craftspeople, and the stakes are higher than they know. We can make sure to be there to assert other fantasies, to contribute to their limited sensoria, to remind them of the walls against which they will hit, hopefully before more people get hurt.

Kevin Hamilton

Eugenio Tisselli Vélez wrote:

Hi Helen,

I fully agree with you that commonality is a necessary condition for the emergence of a community… which, in turn, will constantly transform the very nature of that commonality through interaction between its members. I also believe that commonality can be subtle, or even contradictory: a community may form even emerge out of people holding antagonistic positions. Let me illustrate:

Last year, was invited to do a project in Manizales, Colombia, involving two groups: displaced people (people who had to abandon their home towns because of violence) and de-mobilized people (ex-guerrilleros). Obvously, these two groups are in extreme positions, which can be understood as the opposite ends of the Colombian conflict. However, they were all willing to work on the project. Antoni Abad, the head of, went there and started the project by working separately with both groups. Each group would share a common mobile phone, from which the participants could send tagged images and audio clips to a web page. The goal for each group was to create and share a “community memory”, in which they would reflect their daily life. Each week, the phone would change hands and would be passed on to another participant.

Surprisingly, after a few days of activity, the participants themselves asked Antoni if he could arrange a meeting of both groups. And then it happened: displaced and demobilized people were shaking hands and even hugging each other after realizing that they had so many things in common. According to our Colombian hosts, something like this had never happened before.

The web-based community memory they created together is available at

If I have to see this project in retrospective, I must say that the web page both groups created using mobile phones unexpectedly worked as a pretext for their face-to-face meeting. I also have to say that this community’s creative production of itself is reflected in the folksonomy which emerged from their participation in the project, which can be viewed here:

The most relevant tags speak for themselves.

Finally, I must admit that my intention to start from a taxonomy of networks was maybe a little too far-fetched. I agree that networks are a good example of a fluid space, which can hardly be made to fit into a set of fixed categories. But I just wanted to try and see if we could characterize and find different types of networks, and see if we could identify which of their traits favor (or inhibit) collective creativity.

Eugenio Tisselli Vélez


James Leach wrote:

Hi everyone,

Thanks to Simon for inviting me on board. With so much said already, trying to cover all the points made so far will be too much for me. Forgive the late entry into the discussion (I was away all last week), and the partial nature of the response and these thoughts.

Euginio started us off last week with a welcome caution about the idea of creativity.

The idea of creating something from nothing, as he said, is necessarily outside human experience (by definition) in the Judeo-Christian mytho-poetic worldview. Simon generously cited some of my work on a small village on the Northern Coast of Papua New Guinea, where I divined a rather different place for ‘creativity’, stemming from a different mythically structured consciousness of the place of humans in their world. Creativity is not a distant and sought after ideal that can be turned, on appearance, into an individually attributed good, but is inherent in the actions of human beings as they make and remake their position as humans – that is, engage in acts that are consciously and explicitly geared to establishing gendered bodies (initiations) and resultant separations between kinsmen (and emergent named places in the landscape) so that (re)productive exchange is necessary.

In Reite novelty, innovation, invention etc. are not goal of human action. Creativity is not outside human experience, but part of its everyday reality. Creativity is inherent in what it is to be a human being because in myth, the actions referred to above, beginning with the acts which established gender, and thus the possibilities for human reproduction and kinship, were the actions of the first human beings constituting themselves as human and not something else. In their everyday lives of gardening, animal husbandry, hunting etc., these people are the same as those first creator beings, and thus are constantly partaking of the original ‘creativity’ as they also constitute their lives as human and not something else.

Most/all things Reite people do have an aesthetic dimension – their subsistence horticulture, for example, always involves ‘ritual’ forms of planting; things of symmetry and some beauty, that are there for the pragmatic purpose of drawing the correct relations between people, spirits, other people at a distance from the garden etc., at the heart of the garden space. They make fabulous objects for self-decoration, compose extraordinary music, and so forth, all as aspects of the processes of production, kinship, lifecycle changes, reproduction.

However, it seems to make little or no sense to call any of these things ‘art’, as they are not separated from everyday and prosaic acts – and those acts, as I have said, are the ones that reproduces the world (makes it appear over and again – Latour) in the form recognisable as a human world, to Reite people. But unlike the world Latour describes, they are not in the business of consciously creating ‘the social’, or ‘society’ as an entity that can be discussed, analysed etc,

Maybe all I am doing here is concurring with the thread already established about Foucault, the artists, identity and copyright as dependent on a particular place for ‘creativity’ in western, and institutionalised, understandings of society.

But I thought to go somewhere else: and that is to talk about responsibility.

I noted in Euginio’s comments that despite suspicion with the term, it is very hard for any of us to avoid the positive moral valence of ‘creativity’. In his stimulating post, ‘constructively’, ‘common good’, ‘mutual trust’ etc. appeared. My short description of Reite above could be read to speak of ‘constructive’ actions in the ‘common good’. But I think that would be to mistake what is going on, deceived by the conceptual associations of our own understanding of creativity, and partaking of the kind of ‘constructionist’ view of the social world that Latour refers to.

In Reite, the acts that create the human world as it appears are also the acts that make death inevitable, competition and suspicion between people vying for control over the power to reproduce themselves through relationships to other, etc.

So everything for these people can be, and is, explained by the actions of other humans or their associated sentient beings in the land or forest. There are no accidents, no landforms, weather events – all the things we think are there beyond and outside human ‘creativity’ – that are not the responsibility of people. All illness and death there is the direct responsibility of other sentient beings, and mainly human ones. In other words, being creative of the world is also to be unavoidably responsible for its destruction.

That brings me on to say that to want to be creative is a very different thing from the kind of creative/destructive power that exists in Reite.

Having said all that, and given the underlying premise of all the above is that we, just as Reite people do, constitute our existences through the particular way we engage in relations to each other (social ontology), structured through certain key principles available in myths we tell ourselves about how we have got here and what our responsibilities as human being are — what are we to make of the current idea that somehow the mediation of human relations through technological networks will make us more ‘creative’?

What is it about the speeding up of communication, the mediation of geographical and social distance, that makes us believe (and I use the word consciously) that we are going to be doing anything very different?

We are constantly telling ourselves that the world is changing rapidly, that things are speeding up, that technology is now the condition of our existence, its ongoing development and the consequences of that, outside human control.

But as Kriss points to in her comments, these images do political work. The faith and horror in technology is, as always, a projection of the faith and horror in the human ability (or lack of it) to change their circumstances. The personnel who may have control over that change seems to have shifted. And hence the hope in technologically mediated futures. But looking at the fine grain of the worlds and ‘communities’ created in this mediated space, many familiar themes emerge: exclusions, emergent hierarchies, control and secrecy etc.

Can we help but be creative?

What is it we are creating if we think of creativity as a social ontology?

Is it something we can dip in and out of, chose to do, or avoid?

Jul 4, 16:26
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