Four theses on cultural commons

This is an edited version of a presentation given at the “TCS Philosophy & Literature Conference 2019” (29 May – 2 June 2019) as part of a panel called “Creating Commons”, with Jeremy Gilbert and Tiziana Terranova. At this panel, my task was to present our research project. Given the short time for the presentation (20 minutes), I focused on four library projects, Ubu, aaaaarg, Monoskop, and Memory of the World (MotW) and I tried to distill some of the things we learned through them into “four theses on cultural commons”. So, here they are:

1. Infrastructure is politics

In some way, this is obvious but bears repeating. Infrastructure is politics. The more one controls the infrastructure, the more one can shape it to support whatever one wants to do through it. The less one does, the more one is at the mercy of whoever does control it. Of course, “control” over infrastructure is not a one-sided imposition of the will, but also brings with it its own sets of dependencies, responsibilities, and constraints. There is always a deep entanglement with infrastructure, and the way is entanglement is shaped is part of the politics of the projects.

In the case of the four projects, infrastructure that is directly under their own control comprises server hardware and all the software that runs on top of it.

This does not mean that one has to become a technical expert. Ubu, for example, is technically primitive, simple HTML, no change since 1996, coded by hand by Kenneth Goldsmith, using standard, simple tools such as BBedit (a text editor) and an FTP (file transfer protocol) application to send the locally edited files to the server and thus make them available on the internet. Anyone can learn the necessary technical skills in a single afternoon. Monoskop is technically a bit more sophisticated (but still using standard, open source software packages) whereas aaaaarg and MotW run more complex, custom-built software.

The point, however, is not the sophistication, but the ability to implement one’s own interests and desires. To set the rules of engagement. And this is not even necessarily a technological question. For example, both Ubu and Monoskop when getting a legal complaint (for example, in the form a ‘cease and desist’ letter) try first to engage with the sender, getting him/her to understand the character and motives of the project and trying to convince him/her that it’s actually in his/her interest to have the work on the site. Such an exchange can take some time but is successful quite often. Only if no agreement can be found, a work is removed from the site at the author/owners request. But the control over the infrastructure, and not be subject to some automated process, is a pre-condition to be able to start this conversation in the first place.

Yet, the Internet is a complex medium, consisting of many different layers, and it’s impossible to control all of them. For example, the domain name system is more centrally administrated and control over one own domain name rests, ultimately, with the registrar. aaaaarg, for example, had to change its domain name several times, after it lost access to them through their registrars willingness to react to complaints. So, control and autonomy in technical systems are always limited, but this makes it even more necessary to think carefully about the politics of infrastructure.

2. Copyright is so broken that few are left to enforce it

The copyright system is broken, in more than one way. And there have been many attempts to fix it, some aiming to expand it to new domains and strengthen enforcement, while others introduced new licenses that make sharing and transformation easier. While the former might, in the medium turn, pose new challenges for the four projects, the latter is not relevant because they all work with existing materials that cannot be re-released under a free license.

Yet, all of these projects, despite massive, unauthorized use of copyrighted material exist with relatively little interference from copyright owners. So, one can see that outside hyper-commercial commodity culture, there is a vast grey zone where people and companies are neither really able nor terribly interested in enforcing copyright.

In part, this is the shadow world of orphaned works, works where the formal copyright owner (or his or her successors) have lost all interest in works, yet they have never been released into the public domain. The other part of the grey zone is comprised of authors and owners who are no longer interested in exclusivity that copyright confers them. Rather than clinging to the non-performing economic model of copyright, they operate under a different logic, being happy to see their works being added to a context where they can be accessed, understood and develop old and new meanings. All projects have received donations from authors and copyright holders, eager to have their works included in the collections and contexts created by them.

This is made possible because also the projects themselves do not operate under commercial logic of copyright and legal formalities of licenses but under a different set of rules which are appealing also to authors and (nominal) right holders.

3. Care is core

Care here is used in a broad sense that does include care towards things and care towards people. As such, it is about entanglement, about ways of being related and dependent, and such ways are always ambiguous and can be contentious.

Care, in the context of these projects, allows to think about, and enact, a relationship towards things that does not involve the notions of property and exclusivity (which are in crisis in the digital domain anyway). And by establishing such a relations to things, it is also possible to establish different sets of relationships to people.

The projects use different terms to describe what it is that they are doing. Several use the term curation, which of course is directly derived from the Latin word “curare,” to care. They are for the work by providing a context for them in which they can unfold already known and previously unknown meanings, create new types of use-value in the absence of exchange-value.
MOfW used the term Custodianship derived the Latin “custodia,” meaning protection or safekeeping.

People thus can relate differently to the works and each other. aaaaarg, for example, aims to foster a practice of “reading together.” This is about turning what is normally a solitary practice, reading, into a communal one, forging a microcontext in which an idea can resonate, grow and be transformed to the particular interest and situatedness of the reading group

But establishing relations of care can be contientious, because it challenges notions of property, which are not only commercial, but also have a subjective dimension, for example, when artists and authors see their work as a direct expression of their individuality and thus want to exercise author control. Law suits can ensue which pit these two types of relations against each other.

More interesting is are the ambiguous elements of care, because it generates dependencies or forms of entanglements that may not be easy to loosen. All archives and libraries mentioned here have been sliding, in some way or another, from being artistic projects to becoming infrastructures and institutions other people depend on. So the artists who started be project and who take their responsibility towards the community of users seriously, find that they cannot leave anymore without doing damage to a set of relationships they care about.

This is in stark contrast to property relations, where the exclusive control allows also to discharge all responsibilities over a thing, either be selling it, or be simply ending one care for it.

4. Appropriation is better than participation

Part of the context of many of these projects are practices of socially-engaged art, which, during the 1990s, put great emphasis on various forms of participation. Audiences were no longer regarded as passive consumers of finished artworks, but as active “participants” involved in giving shape to the work, in its material form and/or process. During the 2000, under the framework of neo-liberal art institutions, this all-too-often morphed into a kind of top-down activation, where people are tasked to interpret and fill-out roles, without ever being able to challenge the basic framework under which they were tasked to act.

So, none of the projects uses the term participation. At the core of the projects, there is collaboration, that is dense and long-term forms of working together and also includes thinking about, and setting, the modes, goals, and directions of the collaboration itself.

Projects are more about creating conditions in which the material they provide can be appropriated within, but crucially, also outside the framework provided to the artist or the project itself. Users of the free resource are free and encouraged to find their own uses for the material. In this sense, the aim of these projects is not so much about handing out roles to people within a predefined game but allowing them to define their own game.

For example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s artistic practice that led him to create and maintain Ubu, revolves around the notion of “uncreativity”, meaning it’s less important to create something new (there is already an abundance of everything), but provide context for existing material in which it can be assessed in different ways. But it’s not necessary to be particularly interested in, or even having to subscribe to this idea of the role of the artists in the digital domain, for Ubu to be a useful resource and to be able to take material and import it into whatever context and form of use one deems worthy of one’s time.

In a digital context, where every division is a multiplication (at least in terms of data) and in the absence of enforced copyright restriction to multiplication, this is relatively easy to do.

Beyond the immediate context of these projects, I think this shift from participation to appropriation points more generally to a transformation of political subjectivity and organization, and the need to construct collectives that encompass a multiplicity of frames, rather than establish a single one.

Caring for the Public Library, Interview with Marcell Mars & Tomislav Medak

Marcell Mars (researcher and programmer) & Tomislav Medak (philosopher) work together on the project Memory of the World. They use the concept of the public library as a narrative device to address questions of general access to knowledge and how this has shifted in the digital age. As everyone has the tools to build their own library, they advocate for a new form of a public library, which consists of interconnected private libraries.

This mobilization of individual actors would help to generate a necessary discourse on the limiting aspects if intellectual property. Apart from their work on creating technical infrastructure for their project, they organize digitization campaigns for endangered knowledges, develop tools for sharing books and discursive formats such as exhibitions and texts.

Expanding Cinema, Interview with Sebatian Lütgert & Jan Gerber

Sebastian Lütgert & Jan Gerber are two artists and programmers who developed the movie database 0xdb and its underlying software The more than 15,000 films in the database are objects that cover films hard to find online. 0xbd is not just a database for films but treats film as a veritable digital object, which allows new ways of dealing with films.

The project offers a number of special features such as the visualization of the timeline, time-based annotations, additional information and interlinking with other objects and information, and allows for in-depth search. The project stands in the tradition of autonomous archives and other critical media practices and has collaborated with artists and political activists worldwide. The software, as well as the movies, are available for free.

From Notepad to Cultural Resource. The Aesthetics of Crosslinking at Monoskop, Interview with Dušan Barok

Dušan Barok is a researcher, artist and cultural activist based in Amsterdam. His practice involves networked media, participatory events, and experimental publishing, and he runs and edits Monoskop. Monoskop is a media wiki that evolved from linking and contextualizing information on Eastern European experimental and media arts to host rele­­­vant files, such as books, texts, documents, and media files, and thus became a publishing initiative in its own right.

Due to its constant growth, Monoskop has transformed from a special interest archive to become a significant cultural resource. Today the wiki comprises of 6,744 entries and 13,616 documents, and the related WordPress log introduces new publications on a regular basis. Increasingly, Monoskop also triggers off­line events, frequently with cultural institutions that have come to appreciate the unique resources of this autonomous archive.

The Practice of Sharing Knowledge, Interview with Sean Dockray

Sean Dockray is an artist and initiator of the knowledge-sharing platforms The Public School and aaaaarg.

aaaaarg is an online library and open source platform for freely sharing books and texts. It has its origin in collaborative working groups where resources were gathered in ‘online bookshelves.’ The project eventually evolved as part of the self-organized educational project known as The Public School where it served as a repository for shared study materials. From there it grew to become a major online resource for publications in the field of philosophy, art and political theory with tens of thousands of users, containing material in many different languages. The underlying infrastructure, as well as the contents, are the result of a collaborative effort to which various programmers and the users and editors of the site regularly contribute.

Commoning Infrastructures. Promises, challenges, and the role of art. Lecture by Daphne Dragona

Lecture by Daphne Dragona, Thursday 13.09.2018, at HeK (House of electronic Arts Basel)

Cultural scientist and curator Daphne Dragona talks about alternative community-based network systems and the role art can play in their development.

Practices of commoning are driven by affect, a sense of new possibilities and a desire to respond to existing asymmetries of power. In the case of network infrastructures, asymmetries usually refer to issues of access, as well as to the surveillance and commodification of circulating information. Wishing to oppose the structures of the sovereign corporate systems of communication, different examples of alternative networking have emerged in the last two decades. Initiated and built by artists, activists and other network practitioners, these infrastructures manifest a desire for accessible, user-owned and controlled systems, that respect the needs of different territories, communities and users.

What can we learn from the recent history of alternative and radical networking? What are the promises and challenges of the commoning of infrastructures in times of increasing socio-politcal divides and conflicts? When does commoning need to be readdressed and which forms of learning and doing might be of help? Turning to examples coming from the fields of art, this presentation will examine how the poetics and imaginaries of counter-infrastructures can assist in re-imagining the way we relate to each other and to the world itself.

Daphne Dragona is a Berlin-based theorist and curator. Since 2015 she has been part of the curatorial team of transmediale festival. She has worked with different institutions for exhibitions, conferences, workshops and other events. Dragona has been working in the field of digital and urban commons since 2009, having curated Esse Nosse Posse: Common Wealth for Common People (EMST 2009), Mapping the Commons, Athens (EMST 2010), Off-the-cloud zone (transmediale, 2016) and “… An Archaeology of Silence in the Digital Age”, solo exhibition of Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud (Aksioma, 2017). She holds a PhD from the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens.

Artistic Shadow Libraries

Find the File, Festival, 21-24 March 2019
Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The research project Creating Commons (Felix Stalder, Cornelia Sollfrank, Shusha Niederberger), based at the Zurich University of the Arts, is invited to present first results of its research as part of the festival Find the File. The festival is a discursive music festival that explores questions about collecting and archiving music, in discussions, concerts, and installations. It is about what new possibilities and challenges have arisen for archives with the digital, and how new forms of knowledge can develop through the collecting activities of ‘amateurs’. Last but not least, questions of accessibility will also be addressed.

Creating Commons is involved with two contributions:

1) Artistic Shadow Libraries, Video installation,
Creating Commons,
For the entire duration of the festivals in the foyer of the HKW

The interview montages show artists who create web archives as aesthetic commons practices: the art wiki monoskop, the no-budget avant-garde archive UbuWeb, the online libraries aaaaarg and, and, a database of 15,000 films. Through technical infrastructures, communities and mutual negotiation of terms of use, these ‘shadow libraries’ provide access to cultural goods – autonomous, collaborative, free. In times of progressing enclosures, they thus make an undogmatic and precarious contribution to wide accessibility and collaborative production of cultural memory.

2) Enter and Revive: Conditions for Accessibility and Reuse,
Discussion Sunday, 24 March 2019, 17:00
Guests: Diane Thram (musik anthropologist, Rhodes University), Marisella Ouma (Intellectual Property Consultant), Cornelia Sollfrank (artist and researcher), Gregory Markus (RE:VIVE, The Netherland Institute for Sound and Vision) Moderation: Florian Sievers

Archives and collections are increasingly making an effort to not only document the past but also to make their stock of material available for people to revive and experience, for the purposes of artistic- and knowledge creation. However, granting access to archival material implicates many legally and historically sensitive issues: What sort of tasks, what responsibilities do archives as well as archive-remixers have regarding provenance research, participation and accessibility? What practical examples are there for how to release the tension between reactivation and original context, reuse and author rights? What role does the immaterial character of music and sound play here? In what way can archival work become a commons-building exercise?

Creating Commons
Find the File Programm:
Installation Artistic Shadow Libraries:

Affects, Collectives, and Aesthetics. Panel at Transmediale 2019, Berlin

At transmediale, we hosted a panel discussion with Jeremy Gilbert (University of East London), Gary Hall (Coventry University) Laurence Rassel (Director of erg, Brussels), 01.02.2019

Jeremy Gilbert, Cornelia Sollfrank, Laurence Rassel, Felix Stalder, and Gary Hall (left to right) at the panel Creating Commons: Affects, Collectives, Aesthetics.
Photo: Laura Fiorio, transmediale, CC BY-SA 4.0

The commons have become a powerful vehicle for conceptualizing and experimenting with ways of being, becoming, and working together, within and across conflicting settings.

As they are based on a careful handling of resources, they are mostly discussed within the framework of alternative economies, leaving aside the affective drive that shapes their multiple forms. Focusing on concrete practices, this panel brings together concepts of affect with structural definitions of the (digital) commons and addresses a number of questions:

* What kind of aesthetic can contribute to a practice of commoning?
* How to create conditions for the production of free resources?
* What can the focus on affect add to the fostering of the commons?

Von Creative Commons zu Creating Commons

Die traditionelle Ordnung der Kultur – mit klaren Positionen für KünstlerIn/AutorIn, Werk und Publikum, vermittelt durch ProduzentInnen, VerlegerInnen, GaleristInnen etc. – ist durch die Digitalisierung endgültig in eine Krise geraten. Wie die neue Ordnung aussehen wird, ist nach wie vor unklar und höchst umstritten. Die erste Runde der Auseinandersetzung wurde auf dem Gebiet des Urheberrechts und damit über die Kontrolle der Zirkulation ausgetragen. In der aktuellen Runde dreht sich alles um zentrale Plattformen und deren Strukturen von Ordnung, Zugang und Wertschöpfung. Als ProduzentInnen der Kultur stehen KünstlerInnen im Zentrum dieser Umbrüche. Während ein Teil beflissen ist – vermeintlich im Eigeninteresse – die Rechteindustrien bei der Durchsetzung strikterer Gesetze zu unterstützen, verstehen sich andere als Ingenieure einer neuen Ordnung und experimentieren mit der Entwicklung eigener Formen von sozialer Produktion und Zirkulation. Continue reading “Von Creative Commons zu Creating Commons”

Commons Are not the Sharing Economy. A comment to Ossewaarde & Reijers (2017)

Ossewaarde, Marinus und Wessel Reijers (2017): „The illusion of the digital commons: ‘False consciousness’ in online alternative economies“, Organization 24/5, S. 609–628. (paywalled)

From the abstract:
“Digital commons such as Wikipedia, open-source software, and hospitality exchanges are frequently seen as forms of resistance to capitalist modes of production and consumption, as elements of alternative economies. In this article, however, we argue that the digital commons cannot by themselves constitute genuine forms of resistance for they are vulnerable to what we call ‘the illusion of the digital commons’, which leads to a form of ‘false consciousness’.”

This is both an interesting and annoying article. It’s interesting as it details how „sharing“ can be put into the service of profit-driven centralization. It’s annoying because it uses a small number of cases to make sweeping claims that feel more than a little disingenuous.

Continue reading “Commons Are not the Sharing Economy. A comment to Ossewaarde & Reijers (2017)”

The notion of the „commons“

In this research note, I try to clarify what I mean when I use the notion of the „commons“ in the context of this research project. The note is intended to further the research group’s shared understanding of the term. But at this point, it’s my personal point of view.

Usually, commons are regarded as complex, comprehensive institutions. De Angelis & Stavrides (2010), for example, differentiate between commons (resources) commoners (people, community) and commoning (ongoing social practices).

For a dictionary entry, I defined commons simply as “resources managed by a community for joint use. ” (Stalder 2017) Continue reading “The notion of the „commons“”

Commonist Aesthetics

With Commonist Aesthetics, the editorial team Binna Choi (Casco), Sven Lütticken, Jorinde Seijdel (Open!) introduces “the idea of commonism” – not communism – as a topic that various writers and artists will explore and expand upon in the course of this series. Commonist aesthetics pertain to the world of the senses, or a “residually common world” that is continuously subject to new divisions, new appropriations, and attempts at reclamation and re-imagining…. Full Article at Open!

Articles in this series so far:

Giving What You Don’t Have (springerin Interview)

In a conversation with Felix Stalder, Cornelia Sollfrank provides background information on her current research project Giving What You Don’t Have – a project that explores ideas of peer-to-peer production and distribution in the art context. (published in springerin, Kritische Netzpraxis, Band XXI – Winter 2015, pp. 35-37, originally in German).

FS: Your current project “Giving What You Don’t Have” (GWYDH) can be read as a continuation of your intensive engagement with copyright in the digital context. At the same time, it also marks a turning point. Whereas earlier works often centered around how inappropriate and frequently obstructive copyright is in terms of current practices, now you are dealing with projects that largely ignore copyright. What was the reason for this change of perspective?

Continue reading “Giving What You Don’t Have (springerin Interview)”

Zum Stand der Commons

Hintergrundinterview mit  Felix Stalder von Krystian Woznicki,  Berliner Gazette.

1. Commons ist in gesellschaftspolitischen Debatten in aller Munde: Von “collaborative commons” (J.Rifkin) bis hin zu “atmospheric commons” (N.Klein). Wie schätzt Du die aktuelle Konjunktur ein? Worauf führst Du sie zurück? Welche Positionen hältst Du für wegweisend?

Das Interesse an den Commons nährt sich aus zwei Quellen. Zum einen aus der tiefen Krise der kapitalistischen Ordnung, die sich nicht nur in der Finanzkrise, sondern vor allem in der Umweltkrise manifestiert. Hier werden sehr fundamentale Konstruktionsmängel deutlich, etwa, dass die „Umwelt“ als Externalität betrachtet wird, aus der man Rohstoffe entnehmen kann, oder in die man Abfall entsorgen kann, ohne dass dies ins ökonomische Kalkül einbezogen werden muss. Dieses Problem kann auch ein „grüner Kapitalismus“ nicht lösen, denn Kapitalismus braucht solche Externalitäten, ohne diese hört er auf, Kapitalismus, das heiß ein System welches auf das Ziel der Kapitalanhäufung – und eben nicht andere – ausgerichtet ist, zu sein. Das ist kein neuer Gedanke, Karl Polyani hat den bereits in den 1940er Jahren sehr klar formuliert, aber heute sind die Folgen dieses Problem in Gestalt der Umweltkrise mehr als deutlich sichtbar und es ist schwer vorstellbar, wie der Kapitalismus, trotz aller Innovationsfähigkeit, dieses Problem angehen kann. Continue reading “Zum Stand der Commons”

Commons, informational (Dictionary Entry)

This is an entry which I contributed to the 2nd edition of the “Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology” Georg Ritzer (ed). 2017.

We take it as a sign of the times that, for the first time, a major English language social science reference work contains the term ‘commons’.

Commons, informational

Commons are resources managed by a community for joint use. Commons have existed in different periods of time and in different cultural contexts as a wide variety of concrete institutions (Ostrom 1990). In the West, they have been marginalized by the rise of private property regimes at the outset of industrialization, particularly through the process of land enclosure (Linebaugh 2013). However, even in the West commons have never completely disappeared and, particularly in Alpine regions, traditional institutions of the commons have survived until today. Continue reading “Commons, informational (Dictionary Entry)”