A Tale of Three Quilts

Another in a series of outtakes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, this passage sets up the contrast between folk culture (as it operated in 19th century America), mass culture (as it operated in the 20th century), and the new participatory culture (as it operates in the digital age). I argue in the book that digital culture often applies processes of cultural production we associate with folk culture to content we associate with mass culture. We can understand the relations between these three phases of cultural production by considering the example of three very different kinds of quilts. The first was made for my grandmother upon the occasion of her wedding by the women in a small town in Southern Georgia. The quilt was built up from scraps which each woman had left over from previous sewing projects. The cloth was commercially produced at southern textile mills, but its value here was sentimental - a token of each woman's affection for the young bride. The women didn't have a lot of money but by combining their scraps they could share what they had and express their support. As the quilt was being created, the older women were passing along their skills and experience to younger women, some of whom perhaps had never worked on such a project before. Quilting as a process and the quilt as a product both helped to shape the social relations between the women in that small town. The result was a one of a kind object, shaped by local traditions but also customized to the tastes of its recipient.

Now, let's consider a quilt at the end of the era of mass culture. This quilt is the product of one woman who runs a quilt-making business; the cloth was purchased in bulk as raw materials for a production process. The artist is no longer working collaboratively or drawing on local traditions; the finished work is seen as reflecting her distinctive artistic vision. It is her intellectual property to be sold as she wishes. Its recipient is unknown at the time of its production - the quilt was made to be sold to the highest bidder. In short, what had been an expression of the community has become a commodity in a privatized mode of production and distribution.

To some degree, quilting never becomes fully integrated into mass culture - it remains a hand produced (or sometimes machine stitched) artifact, but what it means to do crafts is still altered by the larger economic and communications context within which this quilt is produced and circulated. Let's imagine that the woman becomes more successful and seeks to proclaim her expertise beyond the local market. She prints a catalog which allows people to order her quilts by mail; she videotapes classes to teach others how to make quilts according to her techniques. When the web appears, she develops her own dotcom selling quilts over the Internet. Quickly, more people will encounter images of her quilts than will come into contact with the physical artifact. This is what Walter Benjamin told us about the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Now, let's consider what a quilt might look like in an age of media convergence. Communimage is a website launched by Johannes Gees and his partner, "calc," in conjunction with Expo. 02. Some 2,000 people from more than 80 countries have uploaded a total of almost 24,000 images to the site . Some of them upload images they have created - hand drawn pictures, photographs, or digital artifacts. Some of them upload images they appropriated from other places - stills from movies or television shows, images grabbed from advertisements, news photographs. The pattern created from all of these images is emergent, a product of a series of localized choices. Any individual juxtaposition may be meaningful - as images may compliment or contradict each other, as multiple panels may form a larger image, as a new image may ironically alter how we read what came before - but nobody would have known before the process started what the finished product would look like. Communimage returns the collective, collaborative, and democratic dimensions of traditional folk culture, yet it can no longer fall back upon shared traditions, since the participants come from multiple cultural backgrounds.

While the organizers initially planned to reproduce this collage as a mural, it has by now expanded to the point where it could not be meaningfully reproduced outside of a digital context. Neither a family heirloom nor a mass produced commodity, this new quilt was designed to be shared digitally with anyone in the world who cares to access it. There no longer is a physical quilt, only the image of a quilt which is itself built up from images. Yet, the shared process of creating the quilt has become, in the end, far more important than the product itself. It says something about the contemporary context of cultural production that the textile mills would not have objected if members of a folk community appropriated scraps of their cloth, yet the media companies might well object if participants in the Communimage project appropriate scraps from their mass media productions.