A few weeks back, my partner Joon and I were on a day trip upstate. Rihanna's song Work came on our "mixtape". Amidst all of the jagged edges of clipped beats and nonsensical sprechstimme, I again had the sense of this being a truly unusual song. So many of the sonic textures were built from what I tend to think of as obscure electronic techniques developed in academic labs. Maybe similar to the one I hung out in during grad. school at Mills College. This little song, like so many others these days, seems to contain elements of fringe experiments by punk-minded jetset-laptop-music crusaders from the early 2000's (been there too) and even the lyric content seemed like it was constructed as some type of fluxus poem. In 2003 if you had told me this kind of stuff would be busting out of everyone's earbuds on the subway I probably wouldn't have believed you. But a decade later, when all of the under-employed CalArts kids start working for the Cartoon Network, then the obscure starts to become mainstream.
The fringe has always been a factory for the fresh. It's just as true now as it ever was and likely even more intense. And honestly, for new works to have the broadest impact possible, mainstream infiltration is not such a bad thing. How would downtown New York ballroom vogue have reached a gay kid growing up in Iowa if Madonna hadn't popularized it? Yes, as Terre Thaemlitz points out, it's not fair that the creators were not compensated. But it's undeniable that the work itself has had a vital life outside of its inventors which is due, at least in part, to blatant mainstream appropriation. That's not to say that it's fair.
More than ever I think a kind of fair-trade system for artists and creative technologists should be implemented. Eyebeam, and other organizations, that exist to look out for creators' interests are more important than ever in mediating these relationships as well as mitigating the negative and damaging potentials of artists bumping up against unfiltered capitalism. The Artist-as-Entrepreneur thinking is all the rage at the moment, but it's not enough. It still puts artists in the role of individual actors and not members of a larger support network and community.
The goal of organizations such as Eyebeam should be to reduce the "wild west" element for those that are creating art works and experimental technologies by providing community, resources, and capital, that allows for free practice and growth. And we have to make sure the creators themselves are prepared, fairly compensated and embedded in a sustainable network of opportunity when they lucidly engage with the world of hyper-capitalist consumption in its many forms.