Craft, Context and Method: The Creative Industries and “Alternative Models”

To appear in MyCreativity Reader, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam 2007.

Danny Butt –

This paper emerged from an invitation to join a panel for myCreativity on alternative business and organisational models, which I accepted because I was excited to participate in such a convivial environment with friends I knew well, and wanted the opportunity to meet others at the event whose work I’ve admired. I can see why on the surface I might have seemed like a good choice for such a panel. I’ve worked as a contractor inside a few different kinds of organisations – from commercial web shops in the 90s, advertising agencies, cultural institutions, and academia. As well, I’ve participated in many not-for profit groups and collectives of various types. Now, as a consultant, I am lucky enough to get to see the inside of many different kinds of firms and engage with their business models (and, of course, our own professional services firm has its own distinctive model). Finally, through work in the field of Internet Governance, I have spent time formally researching and assessing different kinds of models that exist in intergovernmental organisations and NGOs – attempts to support diverse and ethical mechanisms for collectivity and organisation.

However, after all of these experiences, I am less comfortable about proposing alternatives ‘outside state subsidies and hyped markets’, as the framing for the panel suggested. That seems like an odd thing to say given that I have, for as long as I can remember, anxiously sought alternatives to the status quo. However, while I still value where that search has taken me, and still believe in the need for alternatives, I can’t shake the feeling that the levels of alternative platform/model sustainability are mostly low, and that Spivak is correct in her suggestion that it is sometimes better to ‘sabotage what is inexorably to hand, than to invent a tool that no one will test.'[1]

There are three reasons that have led me to this point of view. Firstly, alternatives are easy to propose and difficult to sustain. The need for better alternatives is a ‘mom and apple pie’ discussion in activist communities, and there is a moral flavour to the valorisation of the ‘alternative’ which overrides any true evaluation of one’s actual political effectiveness. Are we prepared to test the impact of our alternatives against the value of efforts at reforming existing organisations and institutions? Personally, I am not suffering for lack of potential new places to put my energy. What I struggle to find are situations where this energy can make meaningful change and such situations are usually attached to availability of resources. Resources exist in organisations and institutions, and I think that it is characteristic of new media and the creative sector to underestimate the resources required for projects: there is a feeling that if we could agree on the priorities for change that these changes would somehow happen ‘immaterially.’ However, without resources we are usually in the sphere of sacrificial labour, as Ross terms it[2]. The martyr streak runs strong in activist culture. The continuing Western European popularity of Mauss’ concept of the ‘gift'[3], idealised and decontextualised from the Pacific cultures which provided the concept for him, perhaps indicates the value that a postcolonial sensibility may bring in deconstructing a philosophical imaginary predicated on a utopian past which never existed, and allowing us a more nuanced view of ethical praxis.

Secondly, outside of the sustainability of alternatives, my ethical sense is that the important political work for those with cultural capital (those of us reading this book) is in precisely orienting our efforts to institutional reform, rather than looking around for emergent forms to appropriate. We have the capability to effect change in existing organisations and institutions, precisely because we have the capacity to critique them. Many others don’t. My interest is in clearing institutional openings to allow the non-dominant to assume their role of the emergent with the support of organisational resources that exist. This will entail us learning to have a dialogue with the agenda/context of the emergent. However, this learning must always be wary of reading the emergent agenda in terms of our own, as such appropriations result in the destruction of the difference.

In other words, we have to accept our cultural dominance in our textual work. We can only claim to be marginal within a very small proportion of the world, and I believe there is the opportunity to expand the field within which we see oppositions between dominant and alternative taking place. Here I would gesture toward, say, the various indigenous language education movements internationally, that perform an inspirational and practical critique of colonial education systems. I’m not quite sure what the lessons from those are for us in the West, and I suspect it is a personal and subjective encounter. But I do know that when I talk with people working in these initiatives I routinely feel refreshed and empowered to create change, which has to be a good thing.

Thirdly, when alternatives are proposed – and almost every meeting/gathering proposes an alternative network or a group as as an ‘action item’, morally opposed to the ‘talkfest’ – I rarely have confidence that they will raise a response from those in non-dominant cultural sectors. As suggested above, these are the sectors who I think have the most to offer by way of alternatives. I think Creative Commons is a perfect example of how the political economy of the creative sector all too easily becomes about the expressive capability of the Euro-American middle classes, which is a too-limited scope for discussion in the face of the financialisation of the planet under transnational capital. Despite the efforts of people like Lawrence Liang, we still have the Creative Commons leader Larry Lessig essentially describing Asia as a centre of piracy and implicitly morally defective[4]. This is not likely to bring residents of Asia on board the political movement of open content, and this is where I believe the most creative approaches to authorship and intellectual property are to be found.

If such responses sound mundane and sociological, they nevertheless for me reflect a vivid social context that is too-little discussed within the new media sector. During their presentation at MyCreativity, Rosalind Gill and Danielle van Diemen described a Surinamese new media worker who remarked on their experience of Dutch firms where the designers were all blond haired and blue eyed, and the service workers were all black. It was a poignant moment, as looking around it was easy to see that who was in our conference didn’t look like who is outside in the street, demographically. I know next to nothing about Suriname other than a schematic of its history as a South American Dutch colony, but I do know for sure that it is a place whose resources are intimately connected with the ability of the Dutch to have an advanced capitalist economy that can set policy around ‘the creative’, just as I know that the material basis of my own settler culture in Australia and New Zealand is based on the appropriation of indigenous resources here. We can only pretend to not be connected to those who are not in the room, even if the questions of how to engage are complex.

It’s difficult to know exactly how to respond to these suspicions of the ‘alternative’, but I would like to attempt some displacements of the alternative through the example of my own trajectory through the Creative Industries. For Judith Butler, ‘giving an account of oneself’ can be a way of exploring the limits of one’s experience as sufficient data upon which one can propose a model for change. The autobiographical mode of address implies the experience of another (you the reader) for whom I must attempt to make myself substitutable in this story – for the story to work you must believe that you potentially could imagine yourself within parts of this narrative. Where my self-presentation does not reflect your experience of yourself, is where we find the limits of our shared agenda, but also, paradoxically, opportunities for dialogue. As Butler suggests, ‘it may be that a certain ability to affirm what is contingent and incoherent in identity allows one to affirm others who may or may not “mirror” one’s own constitution'[5] and it is in this ‘impossible intimacy of the ethical'[6] that I have found value in work within diverse fields including deconstruction, Pacific cultures and my own work within the management consulting field. However, as Butler points out, this is not just a personal process: the terms by which I tell my story are not of my own choosing, and so there is also a larger social structure embedded in the language and terms of the story which I am not in control of, and therefore parts of my experience that remain opaque even to me. Every autobiography is also an auto-ethnography. As Octavia Butler’s character Lillith puts it in the sci-fi novel Dawn: ‘I suppose I could think about this as field work, but how the hell do I get out of the field?'[7]

The mode of the personal story is one which seems fraudulent or self-indulgent within the terms of reference of classical political analysis, but I wish to suggest that there is a resolutely pragmatic character to such stories , if one believes that the most urgent priority right now is to establish more effectively global intellectual platforms against international exploitation. There are two main themes in my story of creative industries practice that structure how I approach creative and intellectual labour: craft, and context.


I had my first real job of longer than a few months’ duration just before I turned 29, as a design lecturer. (I don’t count running a business as a job). Before that I lived a fairly typical creative industries itinerary. I finished high school with no idea that I would be a ‘creative’, as this was before the explosion in art/design/music programmes and the widespread marketing of the university in Australia, and in any case I couldn’t draw so was discouraged from studying art at school. After a year, I dropped out of my sociology degree to play punk rock in Sydney. I was also writing a fanzine on experimental music, and those connections eventually took me to New Zealand. In a way, even before the arrival of the web, I was used to the idea of my imagined community of peers being outside the local environment.[8]

When I arrived in New Zealand in 1993 I was able to turn my fanzine experience and music connections into a writing gig for the local student radio magazine SPeC, and this in turn got me an art-writing gig with the local daily newspaper. Later, I edited the magazine, all the while making music with the people who were some of my favourite musicians in the world at that time. I was developing two parallel crafts, in music and writing. I was also beginning to learn graphic design from a friend who was SPeC’s designer, and I was also writing and exhibiting in the contemporary art context, as some of my main music collaborators were also working in this field, and it turned out to be the place I felt most comfortable.

During 1993 I also discovered the Internet and that new thing called the World Wide Web, and along with some friends we decided to do a free newspaper/magazine about it during a festival in Wellington. The web, as you’ll remember, was a new interdisciplinary context which in the early days was very much the domain of the settler individual (almost uniformly white and male) who was required to integrate technological, design and editorial prowess. Through projects for both various independent media and art initiatives I taught myself interaction design in this environment, and this seemed to be something I was good at.

I was also reading a lot of philosophy and cultural studies on the side. By the time I was 27, I had pretty much done the equivalent of what I now see as two art/media/design degrees, but outside of formal academic institutions, if occasionally supported by New Zealand’s generous social welfare system. I had developed four or five of different craft bases which I could use with some facility, if not to a high level. But all of these had been deployed in organisational contexts which were largely self-directed, and where client work was involved it usually came about through personal connections. Overall, like the average graduate, I was more interested in the process of learning to make than what the effects were, and I was a bit naive and overambitious about the true impact of my work.

So far, not a completely uncommon story for a number of young white middle-class men from the suburbs. The explosion of the Internet and the dot-com boom during the 1990s provided an opportunity for self-styled media revolutionaries such as myself to ply their wares to larger media companies, and New Zealand in 1996/7 was no exception. A friend was working as a Photoshop artist for ad agencies, and it became clear that those agencies were not getting the input they wanted from ‘web companies’ that were primarily set up by people from a technical background, and whose whose understanding of how normal people communicated was a bit skewed. So we set ourselves up to do web development for this market, and suddenly I was not quite in control of the context where my work was being created and received.


Working in advertising (firstly as an external contractor, then based inside the agency) was the first time I had really worked for a sustained period to a contextual/cultural script that was not my own. The values, methods, and temporalities in the agency environment were quite contrary to mine. My work motivators are essentially intellectual and political – projects have to be interesting or doing good, and preferably both. My working style is process-oriented – I prefer to do things with all the relevant information at hand, and to document processes so that next time around I do it better. The agency field, on the other hand is success-oriented, and personality-based. ‘Quality’ is very situational, individualised. Sarah Thornton, in her excellent ethnography of adland, describes the criteria implicit in her job interview perfectly:

Although ideas about advertising were at issue, the questions that seemed to loom largest were: Do I like this person? Will others in the team like her? Is she or can she be one of us? While it would be considered an inappropriate official criterion for working in an academic post, personality is a legitimate concern in a business where working in teams and pleasing clients are essential.[9]

Working in advertising taught me that context itself is different than craft. One might have a certain set of craft skills (say, graphic design) that are theoretically applicable to a particular domain (such as advertising), but in practice they are not because those craft skills have been learnt within another context (say, contemporary art) that turns out to be incommensurable. It’s an experience of not fitting in, where even one’s body seems to give oneself away constantly. It’s not that I didn’t understand how advertising worked. I was an assiduous student and rapidly learnt more than many seasoned professionals about the structure of the industry. But in fact, my very hunger to learn the structure of it gave me away as someone who couldn’t be effective in it. My suggestions never seemed to quite get taken up; my ability to articulate areas of risk or likely error for projects – even when couched in the correct terminology – would be seen as ‘unhelpful’. I gave it my best shot, but in retrospect it was clear to all concerned that I was not ‘one of us,’ and after 6 months working inside Saatchi New Zealand I left for academia.

I’d done some design teaching on the side when we were running our business in Auckland and enjoyed it, and was able to got a real job teaching undergraduate design students on the basis of my professional experience. Teaching in a design school also required me to get my own academic qualifications, and so I enrolled in an MA under McKenzie Wark, ostensibly to look at rural Digital Divide issues (I was living in the countryside), and ending up studying class theory which is where the structuring questions for those concerns seemed to be housed. The academic world also, at last, provided a context for my own writing. Writing is probably the craft I am best at, but it had not had much of a run during my time in the new media design world, and my art and music writing always felt limited by the constraints of formal aesthetic explication which was central to those genres, and in which I had no formal training.

However, while most people now see me as a natural academic, the organisational environment of academia has never been a natural home for me, and I had to work hard to understand it. No one in my family had been to a university, and I didn’t even really have a sense about the social function of the institution. Coming from a small business environment, then through advertising, the sheer scale and immovability of the organisational structures made the academic institution a frustrating place to work, impervious to the rhythms I was used to. I come from the white colonies – we work fast and like to see results fast. Looking back I see that I gained success quickly, probably too quickly, and made some decisions that were also made too hastily, which I regret. However, once again, adapting to this environment/context, doing what it took to gain recognition within the academy, was a learning experience of a different order from learning a new craft skill. Shifting contexts is a test of one’s most basic drives, desires and consciousness – one needs patience and, I think most crucially, an ability to seek out good teachers and guides.

I always kept my hand in the commercial arena. My business partner and I were doing consulting work in the new media industries: assisting with strategic planning, business case development, new venture development, facilitation, competitive research and analysis. I think we ended up in consulting because as those of you who work in the design sector know, design is an integrative discipline that, at its core, has strong overlaps with organisational strategy. In design, one is really grappling with how the core aims of the organisation are embedded in product and service delivery. And during the dotcom era there was an unprecedented discussion about value chains, business models, and how businesses work, which we were really interested in – more so than what looked good or what was technologically possible, concerns which were more common for visual designers and technologists in the new media field.

I can also see that there were aspects to my own upbringing that made me suitable for this kind of work: my stepfather, who I grew up with, was a successful entrepreneur who turned a one-person surf shop into a 50-person business. My father started his work career as an electrician, worked for one coal company his entire life, moved eventually into a personnel role and then acted as a kind of internal consultant, receiving the very creative industries title ‘Methods Analyst’ in the 80s and being a kind of bridge between the shop floor and management, while not fitting into either. I find myself regularly bemused at the degree to which his dinner-table work conversations are reflected in my thinking. Further to that, I usually score INFJ on the Kiersey/MBTI personality tests and this puts me into the archetype of ‘Counsellor’. The old joke is that consulting is 70% therapy, 20% philosophy and 10% artistry and that’s probably about right. Clients are usually people whose institutional environment is driving them crazy. From my mother I gained some empathetic skills that are critical in that kind of work.

Eventually I grew tired of the particular academic institution I was in and wanted to further my research on settler-indigenous relations, which seemed like the most complex and critical social issue where I live, and one which has many resonances with my other research interests. I also wanted to have more diverse work, and my father had been unwell so it felt important to have some time to attend to family. So for the last eighteen months, I’ve been running a company with my business partner based in Australia. While academics often suggest that I’m ‘brave’ for having left academia for ‘life outside’, I don’t see it that way. Working in the private sector doesn’t make one autonomous – if anything, I am now more dependent on the financial variations of our academic clients than I was when I was employed by them. This is why I’m most likely to end up back in academia if I find the right gig – the freedom from business pressure inside the academy, despite the complaints of the natives about commercialisation, is significant, and I’m not really driven enough to be good at business development. But that’s another story.

The beauty of the experience of consulting is that it has allowed me to see the inside of a further range of organisations than I knew before: broadcasters, NGOs, government agencies, the UN system. So I’ve had to formalise my methods of adapting to new contexts. This is where the ability to conceptualise difference than I’ve learnt from feminist and postcolonial work, and from deconstruction, is constantly put to use. When entering a new context of practice, I need to make a subtle reading of cultural scripts that are operating, and learn the operational languages, if I am going to make interventions that elicit a response from those contexts.

Note the methodology embedded in this language. It is not about learning to read a situation in order to make a commentary elsewhere (standard academic social sciences technique: I study something in order to talk about it at a conference). Nor is it about learning to read a situation in order to make a recommendation which has an impact (instrumental consulting technique: I propose a solution which fits your situation). It is about trying to enter the fabric of a context and make a contribution which will be seen by that context as an impetus for change. Spivak [10] calls this the ‘uncoercive rearrangement of desire’, which is a great phrase. It’s a very tough thing to do, an impossibility. But an urgent impossibility that is the hallmark of the consultant’s work (we constantly fight our desire for control which we have no authority to take), and of course, work in teaching the humanities. If our goal with political action is to be more broadly inclusive in our work, I am convinced that a methodology for negotiating difference is critical to enabling effective change.


Reflecting on the trajectory of my work, I can see the range of craft skills and contextual understandings that led to my current interests, even though I had no idea how they would become integrated at the times I was learning them. It’s because I can speak the various associated languages of these crafts and contexts that I can be ‘interdisciplinary’ – interdisciplinarity is not newly divorced from any of threads of craft/context, but is precisely woven from these threads. Like a length of rope spun from off-cuts, there are no clear points where it is easy to say ‘this colour starts here’, even though not all fibres travel the entire length of the rope. And neither are all the fibres fused into an amorphous mass – under close analysis all of the different filaments are visible as distinct entities, and are largely non-substitutable. The specific colours of threads in our various yarns, perhaps, is what makes our creative identities unique.

I surface this fabric/sewing metaphor – with echoes of the Pacific and the interrogation of metaphors in Traweek and Haraway’s work in science studies) because it illuminates what for me is the critical question in the practice of political change. What craft skills can I learn, or am I prepared to learn? These crafts take time, experience and teachers to develop. Perhaps more significantly, what specific contexts of practice am I prepared to participate in, where I can actually use my craft skills in a way which draws a response from that domain of practice? I have a number of connections to contexts where I essentially have no authority and capability to make a significant impact on the political agenda – how do I conduct myself in these?

These questions ask me to reconsider the relationship between theory and practice in particular contexts. If I write academic work in English, that is because that is what I can or am doing, and being able to do it means I might not be able to do other things – or at least, I cannot necessarily do all of the political things I might wish to within the context of theory. The ‘global’ is not accessible to me through theoretical work – instead my own practices of reading and writing are constrained by limitations of language, craft and contextual understanding. Following Butler above, it has proven useful to me to evaluate my own writing and political practices sociologically, to better understand who I develop intellectual relationships with, and in which contexts my work can be effectively made use of by others. In this way, I can also evaluate who is not in the economy of my textual circulation.

This sociological perspective leads me to a level of frustration when encountering theoretical work which seeks a ‘totality’ which remains uninfluenced by the critical literature from the new social movements in ecology, peace, ethnicity, anti-colonialism, gender and sexuality that primarily identify outside classical Marxist terminology, and which have been most influential on my own intellectual and political development. This is not because such totalising categories are not useful – after all, there are international systems which must be described, and this is why I value Marx still – but because their value for the dispossessed can only be activated through resonance with specific social contexts, and the world is bigger than 19th century Europe could conceive [11].

Whenever I attend conferences such as MyCreativity which attempt to engage the question of political change, I feel very aware of the limited capacities we have to identify ‘the political’, and also the limited scope of ‘the political’ that is customary in English-speaking new media discourse. Overall, we are more comfortable talking about something ‘political, out there’ (capitalism, war, or technology) than the openness of our hearts and imaginations to other possibilities which might be excluded from the room we are in. Yet, my suggestion is that it is through our elaboration of our own subjectivity and position that we can connect to others who can help us in our work, rather than limiting our connections to those who already share our ways of making sense of the ‘world.’

So it feels more critical than ever to pull apart narrowly shared understandings of the ‘political’ and to narrate the politics of how we come to these understandings. These politics are, simply, our own stories, our ability to listen to the stories of others, to allow the stories of others to transform our own, and to understand the limits of our ability to tell, limits that are inextricable from the social/economic/cultural locations we inhabit. These limits are, of course, constructed by ‘big issues’ and ‘global themes,’ but whose big issues, from when? The geopolitics of significance in our political imaginary seems unbalanced, when I know more about the history of the political environment in Paris leading up to May 1968, than I do about that in any African nation on its path to decolonisation – let alone the Pacific region I live in today.

Exploring a more global sense of accountability for my writing and work has not been so much about travel to new physical locations, but recognising that a shift in consciousness can take place in the imagination. This is the lesson from feminist theory: the movement that is required is not of ourselves as subjects within the world, but to allow the nature of ourselves as subjects to be moved by the presence of another subject. If there is one thing I’ve learnt from working in the creative sector, it’s that the affective dimensions of our practices, where we feel ourselves changed emotionally, that build solidarity and motivate our engagement at both the practical and aesthetic level. In seeking analogues in the theoretical/philosophical domain I return to Irigaray’s fundamental understanding of the importance of openness and receptivity in the ethical subject – where we are at risk of change from the touch of the other. To write ‘I’ and ‘you’, as Irigaray does, is not to write ‘he’ and ‘she’ – the subjects in the I/you question are not substitutable, or able to be easily instrumentalised in systems thinking [12]. It’s through the sociology of our imagination, perhaps, that we find the structural boundaries that are most in need of transformation in ourselves, and a possibility for a utopian politics which constitutes itself in the ethics of our encounters.

From identity-based social movements, as from craft, we learn the limits of elasticity in our thought: our ability to transform ourselves is much less than we think, and our identities, even under extreme pressure, will probably not turn themselves to something unrecognisable from who we are now. Here is where the value of the imagined ‘alternative’ system becomes less useful, or at least, we have to envisage alternatives in terms which are not available for us to invent, but are precisely constituted in our relationships with each other. This is not a disabling sensibility. In Undoing Gender, Butler considers the possibilities for transgender and intersex recognition in a binary gendered system, one where the subjects move toward and between alternative genres of life which are already overdetermined by binarisitic social discourse [13]. There is no possibility of flight from the gendered binary, and yet utopian impulses play a critical role even when there is persistent failure to achieve them:

Not only does one need the social world to be a certain way in order to lay claim to what is one’s own, but it turns out that what is one’s own is always from the start dependent on what is not one’s own, the social conditions by which autonomy is, strangely, dispossessed and undone.

In this sense, we must be undone in order to do ourselves: we must be part of a larger social fabric of existence in order to create who we are. This is surely the paradox of autonomy […] Until those social conditions are radically changed, freedom will require unfreedom, and autonomy is implicated in subjection. If the social world… must change in order for autonomy to become possible, then individual choice will prove to be dependent from the start on conditions that none of us author at will, and no individual will be able to choose outside the context of a radically altered social world. That alteration comes from an increment of acts, collective and diffuse, belonging to no single subject, and yet one effect of these alterations is to make acting like a subject possible.[14]


1 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, p.9.
2 Andrew Ross, ‘The Mental Labor Problem,’ Social Text 18, no. 2 (2000).
3 Marcel Mauss, The Gift : Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies ,London: Cohen and West, 1970.
4 Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture : How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, New York: Penguin Press, 2004, Ch. 5.
5 Judith Butler, ‘Giving an Account of Oneself,’ diacritics 31, no. 4 (2001): p.27.
6 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘French Feminism Revisited,’ in Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York: Routledge, 1993, p.171.
7 Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 382.
8 Danny Butt, ‘Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and the Creative Industries,’ The Creativity, November 2006.
9 Sarah Thornton, ‘An Academic Alice in Adland: Ethnography and the Commercial World,’ Critical Quarterly 41, no. 1 (1999): 61.
10 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 101.
11 See, for example, Blaut’s critiques of Euro-Marxist diffusionism and the Asiatic Mode of Production. J.M. Blaut, ‘Marxism and Eurocentric Diffusionism.’ ed. Ronald Chilcote Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999.
12 Cecilia Sjöholm, ‘Crossing Lovers: Luce Irigaray’s Elemental Passions’ Hypatia 15, no. 3 (2000).
13 Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge, 2004.
14 Butler, Undoing Gender, 100-01.


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