Unlocking Proprietorial Art Systems interview: with Artists, Gretta Louw, Antonio Roberts & Annie Abrahams

The mainstream art world has been locked into its own proprietorial* systems for years, closing down possibilities for emancipation in the arts. It is clumsy and out of date. Cultural evolution and its expansion is stunted by a complex blend of: conservatism, colonialism, imperialism, conformity, and submission to market dominated directives, which unfortunately lead to an art context ruled by neoliberal agendas. The recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of Rupert Murdoch, to the Arts Council England’s National Council reinforces this impression.*

“The cultural and creative sector “significantly excludes” those from working class backgrounds, which is in addition to barriers faced by women and people who identify as disabled or Black and minority ethnic (BME), new research finds.”[1] And, “The report also finds the creative industries are mostly upper middle class and with very different cultural tastes from the rest of the population.”[2] This is a massive problem.

In these interviews with artists, Gretta Louw, Antonio Roberts & Annie Abrahams I hoped to explore how their critical practices working with new media technologies differentiate themselves from other art world practices. How do they understand the relationship between art and freedom. What values do they explore in their work.?


Marc Garrett: Does a divide between media arts culture and the already established, traditional art systems, exist, if you think this correct what do you think has created this divide?

Gretta Louw:


I think one of the biggest issues is the commercialism of the traditional art systems vs the anti-commercialism of a lot of media art. Perhaps another aspect of the same issue is the lack of viable commercial options for media artists to pursue.

I do think another issue is related less to the art side of things but the media aspect. The Internet has developed according to a Freemium sort of model, and people expect everything to be free on-line, and I have long wondered whether this leads to a perceived degradation of the importance of on-line culture. It is seen as more throwaway than traditional art forms. I wonder whether this springs more out of the attitude that has developed towards the digital as something that is not really ‘real’, that is ephemeral, and easily accessible/disposable.

Antonio Roberts:


Media Arts/New Media/Digital Art (or whatever you want to call it) goes against a lot of what traditional art systems represent. In Media Arts ownership an idea is often shared amongst a group of people, importance is rated on contributions to a community or cause over charisma, and, quite often, the creative output in media arts is not a physical object which can be owned, traded or sold.

All of this is scary, especially considering the long history of traditional art systems, so I can see why there would be a reluctance to adopt new practices

Annie Abrahams:

Annie Abrahams, artist, interview @ "Simeio Art", Greek Public TV (ERT)

I see a lot of different reasons : Media arts culture is based on the idea that new media bring about a new art domain. It has been preoccupied with and fascinated by the means, the technology and its possibilities and not so much with what kind of specific aesthetic experience that brought about. So media arts culture never got grounded very well as art. Partly because art historians and critics didn’t know how to or want to look at it, but also because there was and is aesthetic disdain by a lot of media art practitioners.

The art world is a conservative world that doesn’t let others in easily, than professionals. A way to judge that professionalism is by a diploma of an art school. Art school were very late to introduce media art in their curricula, mostly because traditional teachers didn’t know anything about it and couldn’t judge it. So this was self-enforcing the not crossing over of the fields.

The art world is in general solipsistic, not concerned with collaboration and exchange. There lives the culture of the individualistic genius. In Media arts you have to be collaborative and you have to exchange – so the “culture” in both domains are different. Media art is closer to science in that respect.

And the last thing I thought of : The art world needs sellable objects, which either we don’t make, or can’t guarantee to stay “alive”. There is certainly more to say about this. Curators and exhibition makers also played a big role by till, maybe until recently, putting together works based on technological and media criteria and not or hardly ever by treating a subject while using media and traditional art in one show. Moreover on festivals works used to be presented in dark, small, often ugly spaces. There was little attention for showing the aesthetic qualities at it’s best.

MG: If you feel and or think it has changed for the better – how and why, and to what degree?

GL: I think media art over the last decades has made HUGE contributions to the broader arts community. A lot of the politically and socially engaged art that we are seeing today across all mediums has been, I think, inspired to some degree by media arts practices that have demonstrated how art can be more participatory, egalitarian, and directly engaged in social justice movements.

That being said, I am also seeing more of a movement towards a commercialisation and co-opting of media art practices by the existing corporate and capitalist interests. This is the imperviousness of the capitalist system; it seemingly always finds a way to co-opt resistance into the system (for example the way that organic food movements are now used by massive, anti-environmental companies like McDonalds to sell more product; buy an organic burger and a salad from Maccas!). I am personally losing some faith in the use of digital tech as a medium through which to critique the progress-over-everything neo-liberal narrative of capital-T Tech.


AR: I do not think it is changed for the better. In my view, Media Arts is trying to gain more relevance by mimicking traditional systems. For example, media arts biennales, prizes and rankings, using technology to create false scarcity. It does mean we, as media artists, are gaining more acceptance into the traditional systems, but these systems are flawed from the outset, so it’s not necessarily a winning situation.

AA: Since the 60s and the last century – not much. Although there are more known artists using technology (it is taught and included in curricula now). And maybe yes, the media art system became more powerful, less underground, alternative (in the 90ties a lot of artist came to the Internet in order to avoid the traditional art world) or almost invisible because practiced in one “obscure” science department somewhere. Nowadays there is a lot of money and manipulation going on through technology based companies and governmental institutions – there is money in media art. Artists somehow facilitating the introduction of technology to the layman and they start to be used for that.

BeyondSpec – performance Beyond (spectacle) – Episode II, Annie Abrahams and Igor Stromajer, 21/02/2014, festival Tropisme, La Panacée Montpellier (screencapture Helen Varley Jamieson).

MG: My study explores aspects of proprietorial systems. If you generally agree on the premise of where I am coming from. What areas in your practice do you feel this needs to change?

GL: As I mentioned above, I am beginning to turn away from a lot of computer/software mediated approaches to making my work. I want to use more heritage techniques, slower methodologies, and things that are outside of the all-encompassing tech obsession.


AR: Related to my previous answer, I think in order to change we need to have a shift away from gaining importance and building a better reputation by associating yourself with large, traditional institutions. This also extends to giving any one large body, whether they be Indie/DIY or corporate, dominance over our practices.

So, questioning whether an artwork is good, because it is judged to be good because it has been exhibited at [insert large institution].

Antonio Roberts performing in front of his art at Furtherfield, Glitch Momentums Opening event, 2013.

MG: Also, if you know of examples you feel where proprietorial systems are being challenged positively (or negatively). let me know.

GL: Well, I think our app project Mirawarri from last year does this to a certain extent; it is about providing fun/accessible/pop-y digital culture tools that are outside of the closed North American system of platforms like, Snapchat and Instagram, filters. It presents a possibility to engage with digital culture through a completely different cultural lens. Examples of how it’s being used: https://www.instagram.com/mirawarri/

Screenshot at 2018-04-22 12-31-09

Also I’m working on a project at the moment with Owen Mundy and Joelle Dietrick called Tally, which is a browser extension in the form of a game that basically educates players, in a fun, gamified way, about how and when their on-line activities are being tracked in the background for marketing purposes.

AR: However, new technologies such as the more recent iterations of VR are largely owned by private corporations. Whilst these technologies are accessible int terms of how they can be used and developed on/with, there is the danger that by giving them so much power and investing so heavily in their way of doing VR/AR we will allow them to dominate our work flows and dictate how, what, where, and when we create.


In his book, The Black Box Society, Frank Pasquale, proposes that, educated “citizenship today requires more than an understanding of government, which is just the tip of an iceberg of social organization. It also demands an understanding of the companies that influence our government and culture.”[3] (Pasquale, 2015) Pasquale’s call mainly concerns digital citizens reclaiming a sovereignty over our algorithmic interactions, and their infrastructures. Yet, in regard to art culture, there is a top-down market driven approach that dictates the value of the arts. Think of all the crap and vapid, over produced songs, being shoved into our minds via the music industry’s greed for more and more money, and thus killing any thoughtful and or in depth songs to reach the top of the charts ever again.

Those who are running these top-down orientated, established art magazines and art organizations, and tech-companies, believe in the processes and the canons justifying their privilege. They instinctively build walls around themselves and become untouchable: unless, particular conditions exist where you yourself reflect and or perpetuate similar market driven, neoliberal ideologies. These attributes also convey a dedication towards hierarchy and nationalism, and a self-image where there is strong, cultivated sense of authority, where those accepted as the great and the good are given pride of place for all to admire.[4] (Garrett, 2012) These asymmetrical conditions on the whole are an unquestioned set of defaults, frozen into a psychology in support of the continuation and maintenance of the patriarch. Murray Bookchin proposes that, even before social class emerged that “the priesthood established quasi-political temple despotisms over society, the patriarch embodied in a social form the very system of authority that the State later embodied in political form.”[5](Bookchin 1982)

Just like in the music world, the most interesting, thoughtful and radical art tends to be bubbling under the mainstream carnival of emptiness and utterly mindless drivel. Whenever I go to galleries, they rarely reflect: art, ideas, and contexts beyond their own safe box of canons. Like Pasquale proposes in respect of citizenship, we need the same in the art world. But, also we need to address this notion that technology is the be all and end all. It’s not.

1&2. Working class people ‘significantly excluded’ from arts careers. Artsprofessional. April 2018. https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/working-class-people-significantly-excluded-arts-careers

3. Pasquale, F. (2015) The black box society: The secret algorithms that control money and information. Harvard University Press.

4. Garrett, Marc. (2012) Disrupting The Gaze: Art Intervention and the Tate Gallery. Academia. https://www.academia.edu/3310901/Disrupting_The_Gaze_Art_Intervention_and_the_Tate_Gallery?auto=download

5. Bookchin, Murray. (1982) The Legacy of Domination. The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Cheshire Books, Palo Alto. P.120.


The meanings of the words proprietorial and proprietary are closely linked. Proprietary is defined as meaning that one possesses, owns, or holds the exclusive right to something, specifically an object. For instance, it can be described as something owned by a specific company or individual. In the computing world, proprietary is often used to describe software that is not open source or freely licensed. Examples include operating systems, software programs, and file formats.[5] Many involved in the Free and Open Source Software movement, share a set of values built around its beliefs against proprietary control over our use of technology. Olga Goriunova argues that, software is not only bound to objects but also includes social relations and it’s about breaking away from the fetishism of proprietary software structures, and “commodification of social processes layered into software production and operation.”[6] (Goriunova 2008)

However, if we consider the definition of proprietorial, in the Cambridge Dictionary, it is especially poignant when it says “like an owner: He put a proprietorial arm around her.” This brings us directly to a biopolitical distinction. The term biopolitics was first coined by Rudolf Kjellén, (who also coined the term geopolitics)[7] (Markus 2015) and then later expanded upon by Michel Foucault, arguing that certain styles of government regulate their populations through biopower. Hardt and Negri developed Foucault’s ideas saying “Biopower is a form of power that regulates life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and rearticulating it.”[8] (Hardt and Negri 2001)

Garrett, Marc. (December 2018) Unlocking Proprietorial Art Systems. Researchvalues2018.


“The appointment of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elisabeth Murdoch to Arts Council England’s National Council is not only deeply troubling, given her close ties to the Murdoch corporate empire, but is also a glaring example of how nefarious the UK arts establishment has become. The appointment of ex-Tate boss Sir Nicholas Serota as Chair of Arts Council England has clearly ushered in a new era of favouritism and nepotism in which a tiny select elite grease the palms of each other and their friends and family. Just look at the biographies of the other members of the National Council.

The appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch is directly linked to Sir Nicholas Serota’s current leadership of Arts Council England and to his wife, Teresa Gleadowe’s own arts projects. There are numerous connections, of which only some will be touched upon here. But first let’s remember that during Serota’s reign at Tate, he supported artwashing in the form of BP sponsorship, refused to recognise unions, privatised staff positions, introduced the use of zero hour contracts, presided over a culture of widespread bullying, privatised information, and, of course, Tate staff were then asked to kindly chip-in for a new boat for his leaving present! Serota’s leadership of Tate lasted 28 years.” COLOURING IN CULTURE. Elisabeth Murdoch’s appointment to Arts Council England National Council is a corporate takeover of the arts – a takeover facilitated by Sir Nicholas Serota and his wife Teresa Gleadowe December 15, 2017. http://colouringinculture.org/blog/murdochserotacorporatetakeover