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Q&A: Helen Brunner

artist advocate, media policy connector, social justice champion, and Director of the Media Democracy Fund.

What’s the piece of news this week that is forefront on your mind when you think about technology, policy, and the arts?

It’s hard with what is going on internationally not to think about the situation in Egypt.  The notion that something like the Internet could be turned “off” so to speak is surprising to many people. It’s also fascinating to see how quickly local activists and the International human rights community worked together to find ways around the closed communications environment using the intersections of different technologies, such as the Google phone line for calling in and listening to tweets with #Egypt.

Why do you think this issue is relevant to the arts community?

Freedom of expression and access to information and knowledge are core necessities for artists. Art is also the realm where many differing or even warring parties can connect, and sometimes even negotiate across differences.

It’s critical for the arts community to understand how fragile and open to manipulation these technologies are.

What are some exciting things happening in the nonprofit arts sector with respect to technology and/or policy?

I’m inspired by artists who use technology in innovative ways to either make or distribute their work – and some who have learned how to earn a living from their work. Technology is just another tool, or form of pencil if you will. As new technologies develop, the work tends to become more complex and not just about the attributes of the particular technology.

Why are they exciting to you?

New forms create new ways to understand the world, and old forms being distributed more widely also creates a richer world to live in. The global connections among artists are exciting, and new networks or efforts seem to pop up every day. There will be new ways for organizations to exist – ones that may be more effective or at least expand the resources available for artists. Audiences and communities can participate more deeply and the lines between the maker and the viewer are blurring in increasingly exciting ways. The potential is extraordinary, although I would never suggest that technology is cure to all problems.

What do you see as a major challenge for the arts sector with respect to technology and copyright policy?

It’s a complex area and the rules are hard to understand. The laws are out of date and the approaches to revising them are becoming more draconian.

I am concerned that artists are not aware of or engaged as much as they need to be in the public policy side, in monitoring and trying to influence the behavior of companies that control the distribution platforms.

Now that convergence is actually here, people are beginning to experience the ubiquitous nature of digital communication. They have yet to understand the need to create rules of the road to protect their interests.  Situations like Egypt are a wake up call. Many people I’ve spoken with are absolutely stunned that the Internet could just be taken away.

While we have a long way to go in engaging the non profit arts sector as deeply as they need to be, I think they are becoming much more aware of the ways in which policy will affect their ability to make, distribute, document and earn a living from their work, through the work of organizations like NAMAC, Public Knowledge, and Future of Music Coalition.

Do you have a latest toy that you’re playing with that you’d like to comment on?

Kind of silly but I finally jail broke my iPhone so traveling internationally I can use a local SIM card. It’s a simple thing, but point to the draconian control that incumbent mobile carriers have in the US over basic phone communications.

Anything you are working on that you would like to share?

I am really excited about the work of the MDF grantees, and since there are 27 of them it is hard to go into too much detail. Would love to encourage folks to look at our grants list at and click on the links.  I’m also excited to go to Dakar tomorrow for the World Social Forum.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with the global communications rights movement and see the arts and culture work being done there.

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About Jean Cook

Jean Cook is a musician, producer and Director of Programs for Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit that works to improve the lives of musicians through research, education and advocacy on policy issues that directly impact the ability of musicians to make a living and reach audiences. She is a founder and director of Anti-Social Music, a New York-based new music collective, and currently records and tours with Ida/Elizabeth Mitchell, Jon Langford, and Beauty Pill. For FMC, she currently project directs initiatives to fix jazz and classical music metadata, analyze what is actually played on jazz radio (and how to improve data collection), and understand how copyright impacts indigenous artists in places like Ethiopia, Tajikistan and Australia.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick Russell, Media Democracy Fund. Media Democracy Fund said: MDF's own @helenbrunner, interviewed by Jean Cook in @artsjournal about technology, policy and the arts […]

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