Charlotte Webb on Digital Labour and The Work We Want

CCW PhD student Charlotte Webb is a co-founder of Glasshouse Collective, a group that creates projects exploring social, political and economic problems and possibilities brought about by the web. Their current focus is  The Work We Want, a project about digital labour funded by The Space. Webb has recently been interviewed by Ruth Catlow of Furtherfield Gallery about this research. In an excerpt of the interview, Webb discusses digital labour and how Glasshouse has evolved since its inception at last year’s hackathon at Tate Modern.

Ruth: I am wondering how best to approach the interview.

Especially for the people on the Netbehaviour list, I think that the way the project moves between art and entrepreneurial strategies will be very provocative (I find it very provocative).

btw Do you know A Crowded Apocalypse by IOCOSE – an artist group who out-sourced/crowdsourced conspiracy theories and global protests.

Charlotte: Hmm – yes, it’s really tricky because questions about digital labour in relation to art practice, the knowledge economy, crowdsourcing cultural production, affective labour etc are related but distinct from questions about digital labour relating to more general ‘work’.

What I think this reveals is that questions of exploitation need to be understood as culturally relative. Obviously we don’t want cultural producers to be exploited, but at the same time you just can’t say that ‘working for free’ by, say, contributing to a mailing list discussion or creating a Tumblr is exploitative in the same way that competition-based freelance platforms encourage.

We talked to the founders of a Nigerian freelancing platform last week, and I asked them about this. I said that Western discourses tend to focus on precarity, lack of unions, lack of sick/holiday pay etc and asked whether this was an issue for Nigerian workers. They said it might be in the future, but for now, workers are just desperate for money and will take whatever work they can get as a matter of necessity.

Also, precarity is much more of an ‘issue’ for rich countries because we’re used to stability, but people in poor countries are used to needing multiple revenue streams and being self-employed.

Thanks for Crowded Apocalypse….looks great.

Charlotte: Reading through the IOCOSE interview has made me think about how our project has shifted – at the Tate hack it was very much about outsourcing the creative process (our group motto has become ‘let it go’!), and challenging the idea of the author, as IOCOSE touch on.

This was a fascinating and knotty approach, but as the project has progressed, we’ve taken more control over the production process. It was partly because we really wanted to understand the system of digital labour, and to hear from specific voices about it so we could raise awareness about a potential future of work coming to all of us. That required us to run a pretty tight logistical ship and to take a bit more control, so we moved away from the focus on outsourcing creativity for quite pragmatic reasons.

I think I’m struggling with the ‘but where’s the art?’ question in our project, and can’t quite decide ‘what’ it is, and whether this matters. I’d love to know how you’d categorise the project?

Ruth: I ask about the art, because you describe yourself as an artist. I think it’s true that you describe Glasshouse as an arts collective, that came together at the launch event for The Space which is a digital arts commissioning agency.

If I were to come straight to your Digital Labour project I might describe it as a social research project that employs some engagement techniques that are informed by participatory art.

What I’m interested to hear from you is about why it was important to describe Glasshouse as an arts collective.

Charlotte: We described ourselves as an art collective early on (we formed in June 2014) as that was loosely how we conceived of ourselves. Partly that was a result of meeting at Hack the Space, and the focus of our work on outsourcing creative activities.

Since then, the membership of the group has changed, and we’ve avoided calling ourselves an art collective on, because we (or at least I) see the project in a way that is similar to your description. Although the importance of the category ‘art’ has fallen away as we’ve been led by our ‘findings’ (to use a researchy term), the engagement techniques you mention do come out of a knowledge of participatory (and other) art practices, and it would be unusual to find them in a straightforward social research project. The work will take a physical form at the Web We Want festival, as well as taking an online form on the Space website. In that respect, I’d say the work belongs to a broad field of networked cultural production.

For the full interview, visit Furtherfield.

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