Stephanie Rothenberg

Associate Professor, Department of Visual Studies
SUNY Buffalo

As curator for the ISEA2012 symposium subtheme Creative Economies: Econotopias, the moment felt ripe to begin exploring what is now meant by the term “creative economy”– an evolving concept and frequently overused neologism that has become a challenge to clearly define. It had been over a decade since the debut of Richard Florida’s 2002 bestseller “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which posited a highly debated theory espousing the knowledge worker (arts, culture, industry and sciences) as the new driving force of economic development in U.S. post-industrial cities. Since then the U.S and the world at large experienced a thunderstorm of economic instability including a global financial meltdown in 2008, the U.S. housing market bubble bursting in 2010 and the American student loan debt surpassing credit card debt in the $1 trillion range. Shortly thereafter, the Occupy movement emerged, raising its tattooed, multi-cultural, inter-generational fist in support of the 99% that are economically under served. Was this the economic utopia, led by a parade of “cultural” workers, which Florida envisioned?

Instead the focus falls on the word “Econotopia” – a portmanteau I coined from economics and utopia. We are now setting our sights on an idealized landscape where pollution-free rivers are flowing with the free exchange of knowledge, class is a subject you take at school, and scarcity doesn’t exist. As the dream of the networked creative class began turning in on itself, creating an unsustainable, global system of physical and psychic exhaustion, a new movement began rumbling; re-evaluating and reassembling the shards of what was becoming a shattered and inequitable ideal that benefit few. Massive personal debt, worker precarity, unaffordable housing and widespread environmental degradation have become a familiar laundry list to the majority. How we think about economy in terms of value and exchange within a global information society governed by speed, surveillance, networked distribution, and participatory culture needs some rethinking. Under the best scenarios, creative economies can lead to innovative and sustainable solutions that can shift the way the world works.

What was formerly known as the “creative economy” has been slowly transformed into a new set of ideas and practices around value and exchange that embrace a more ethical dimension. Now popularly referred to as the “sharing economy,” the “mesh,” and “collaborative consumption,” this shift in economic thinking based on principles of the commons–both a medieval and non-western model of shared ownership to land, resources and cultural production–engages a peer-to-peer production model that interfaces the brick-and-mortar terrestrial with the acceleration and fluidity of the virtual. Attempting to détourne the impact of the aforementioned info society’s problems with self-interest and mass privatization, the premise of this new economy is founded on values (as stated by the info society’s bible, Wikipedia) that include “trust, transparency, economic empowerment, creative expression, authenticity, community resilience and human connection.”

Similar to Florida’s cross-ranging sources, catalysts and inspirations that have spearheaded this alternate trajectory of economic thinking encompass a broad sector of industry, government, academia and the arts, but also non-profits, co-operative structures and community-based organizations. Innovators and early proponents of the open source software movement such as MIT computer engineer Richard Stallman and Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler were key leaders in expanding the ideology of open/free information sharing of software into a more widespread social and production philosophy. Thinkers such as the feminist economic geographers Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham have put forth non-capitalist models of economic development that addressed class, race and gender. Propagating her ‘wisdom of traditional practices’ in regard to land issues, farming and indigenous medicine, the environmental activist and physicist Vandana Shiva continues to argue for the protection of traditional knowledge by its contemporary use.

Yet even this collaborative, more eco-friendly and socially minded economic approach is not void of contradictions. Recent heavy hitters on the alt.econ playlist such as social entrepreneurs Lisa Gansky and Rachel Botsman, instrumental in injecting the notion of a “sharing economy” into the mainstream, are subject to critique. As this new economy movement gains popularity, can it uphold the equitable value system it proposes? Does it matter if the impetus behind our shared services–our zip cars and airbnb networks–are venture capitalists rather than grassroots organizations? What happens to social relations when they become commodified through a crowd funding “Kickstarter” style platform? Will “trust” become just another marketing buzzword?

The goal of the ISEA2012 Creative Economies: Econotopias symposium subtheme was to begin exploring these critical issues. Through keynote presentations, panels and artist’s talks, a diverse range of local and international artists, designers, entrepreneurs, economic developers, city officials and community organizers came together to collectively reevaluate what we mean by value, exchange and debt within the realms of cultural production, distribution, education and collaboration. The complete list of engaging and thought provoking participants is too long to mention but a few of the highlights included Ted Howard, co-founder and Executive Director of The Democracy Collaborative and architect of the green jobs and wealth building initiative known as the Evergreen Cooperatives, a connected group of worker-owned food production, solar energy and laundry cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio; Stephanie Pereira, Art Program Director at Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform for creative projects; Amanda McDonald Crowley, independent cultural worker and curator focusing on artist-driven sustainability practices; and a panel called Buffalo (NY) as Wilderness, rethinking the concept of “wilderness” through the lens of America’s shrinking cities.

The Creative Economies: Econotopias essays included in the current ISEA2012 Machine Wilderness: Special Media-N edition are intended as a starting point to an ongoing discussion. The authors featured have played a significant role in publicly articulating the implications of this cultural shift and imagining possible futures. Caroline Woolard, co-founder of and Trade School, two barter economies for cultural producers, and a coordinating member of SolidarityNYC, addresses the institutions of power and property in her playful rewrite of the original GNU free software manifesto re-titled Proposal for the Free/Open/Libre Art Foundation. Artist/activist/software developer Denis Roio (aka Jaromil) expands on the philosophy of Bitcoin, a widely used peer-to-peer virtual currency in an excerpt of his essay Bitcoin, the end of the Taboo on Money. In Paid Usership: speculations on remuneration in cultural digital economies, Rénee Ridgway, co-initiator of and contributor to n.e.w.s., a collective online platform for the analysis and development of art-related activities, argues for remuneration for our unpaid, immaterial digital labor. All three essays purport alternatives for moving towards a contemporary public commons, or rather, an “Econotopia.”


Stephanie Rothenberg is an interdisciplinary artist who engages participatory performance, installation and networked media to create provocative public interactions. Straddling the real and the virtual, her work investigates new models of global, outsourced labor and the power dynamics between contemporary visions of utopian urbanization and real world economic, political and environmental factors. She has exhibited internationally in venues such as The Sundance Film Festival, MASS MoCA, LABoral Art Center, Transmediale, Zer01 Biennial, New York Hall of Science and the Whitney Museum Artport. She is a recipient of numerous awards, most recently from the Harpo Foundation and Creative Capital and has participated in residencies at Eyebeam and Free103 Wave Farm among others. Her work has been widely reviewed including Artforum, Artnet, The Brooklyn Rail and Hyperallergic. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Studies at SUNY Buffalo where she teaches courses in design and emerging practices.