Rhea Myers

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mac Operator

The way artists make art often reflect the means of production of their age. The artist of feudalism was an artisan or alchemist, the Renaissance artist was adept at mathematics and geometry inspired by trade and war, and Andy Warhol’s factory embodied the spirit of mass production.

If you looked in the jobs pages in the early 1990s, you’d see adverts for “Mac Operators”. A Mac Operator would use the only Apple Macintosh in the company to do design work using Illustrator, Photoshop and Quark at a low rate of pay.

When I got to art school at around that time I begged and borrowed access to Macs to make art using Photoshop and Illustrator. I acted out the role of the Mac Operator (rather than alchemist, merchant or factory worker) without realising it to make art.

The Mac Operator is a kind of knowledge worker. Knowledge work is post-industrial work. Another example of post-industrialism is brand-based outsourcing. The production of Jeff Koon’s artistic brand is outsourced. But Koons is a manager rather than a worker.

Mac Operators were representative producers of mass culture at that time. But Web 2.0 means that everyone can now use a computer to produce culture as part of the crowd. Outsourcing has become crowdsourcing. Mac Operators, like sign painters, are not now a contemporary phenomenon.

I started out remixing images, and I continue to do so, aided now by the Creative Commons licences so beloved of Web 2.0. I am still sat at a computer producing art as an individual, rather than using the crowd to do so. But I am using a GNU laptop rather than a Power Mac desktop system.

The laptop-based knowledge work figure is the “laptop warrior” or the Bay-area coffee-shop wifi leeching “bedouin”. These are the people who start the Web 2.0 companies and web applications that the crowd use to produce their culture.

So I haven’t ended up as far from the contemporary creative practice of computing as I’d feared. And I’m not criticising artists who mimic Web 2.0 strategies without adding anything to them, when I do criticise them, from a position of historical irrelevance. I’m just reflecting a different aspect of current computer-based production.