Interview with Laurence Rassel, conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, 4 March 2018, HeK Basel
The traditional order of culture – with clear positions for artists/authors, works and audiences, mediated by producers, publishers, gallery owners, and so on – has finally come into crisis as a result of digitization. The new order, however, is still unclear and highly controversial. The first round of the dispute focused on the field of copyright law and thus on the control of circulation. In the current round, everything revolves around central platforms and their structures of order, access and value creation. As producers of culture, artists are at the heart of these upheavals. While many are busy supporting the content industries in enforcing stricter laws – supposedly in their own best interests – a few others see themselves as engineers of a new order and experiment with the development of their own forms of social production and circulation.
Creative Commons and the Utopia of the Free License
On June 1,1999, U.S. student Shawn Fanning released the Napster software, which allowed users to connect with others to share music. The network was mediated by a central server, which provided an up-to-date directory for searching the offered files and finding a certain piece anywhere in the network. Barely six months later, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) launched a lawsuit for copyright infringement that further increased the publicity of the service. Within 18 months, the number of users grew to over 25 million, an overwhelmingly large number at the time. Shortly afterwards, the service was closed, but the knowledge of how easily the digital genie could escape from the bottle of property had entered mainstream.
Of course, Napster wasn’t the only leak in that bottle. At the turn of the millennium, a complex digital culture had emerged. It relied heavily on the appropriation, modification and dissemination of existing works in both amateur and professional fields – a development against which the established cultural industries proceeded with increasingly aggressive technical (digital rights management) and legal means (cease-and-desist letters and lawsuits).
Against this backdrop, a group of liberal copyright specialists, mainly from US universities, assembled to found Creative Commons. In its core, CC is a set of licenses that make it easier for artists to make their works available to users in a way that allows actions that are part of digital everyday life. Its aim was to modernize copyright practice and adapt it to the new conditions of easy copying and distribution. Accordingly, non-commercial distribution has always been permitted for CC licensed works, and every author is free to allow commercial use and modification of her work. The hope was that through the use of the licenses a pool of freely available resources would emerge – a commons, which would form the basis for new creative works.
However, the success of this initiative calls for a differentiated consideration. Creative Commons licenses have undoubtedly become the global standard in the field of free licensing of cultural works. Not only are they used by default by major projects such as Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 platforms; they also form the basis of Open Access in the academic sector. At the same time, the project can be considered a failure because it has done little to change the basis on which the free licenses are building, namely copyright law. All newly created works are still automatically protected by copyright, which usually applies until 70 years after the author’s death. The long period of validity is one of the main points of criticisms, because many works for which there is no longer a commercial interest after a few years, can still not be made accessible and instead end up in archives, where they often disappear for reasons of unresolvable legal issues. For artists, however, the more relevant critique concerns the restrictions regarding reworking. Every artist still runs the risk of coming into conflict with the law if she collages, remixes or samples protected material. The reasons for the cumbersome nature of copyright reform are not least the great perseverance of those who bind their existence to the dwindling copyright market. On the one hand, these are the big cultural-industrial content providers, such as the film and music industry, but also representatives of the artists themselves, such as the collecting societies. They have been engaged in many countries in fierce, backward-looking battles for a long time such as the empty media levy that positions artists against users.
But mistakes were also made on the supposedly progressive side, as can be seen in retrospect. Artists who have understood that control over use is increasingly becoming a control over their production, demanded exceptions for artistic practice. If, for example, they are dependent on protected material as “raw material” that is to be processed by collage and remix techniques, there is always a potential copyright conflict present. One of the preferred defence strategies, artists’ claim for freedom of art, however, does little to accomodate new forms of networked creativity and digital authorship; instead, it conjures up precisely that exceptional autonomous subject from which many artists were trying to turn away. And all those creators who have not reached the threshold of “professional art” – which is true for most producers of digitally processed content – are not helped in any way by the invocation of artistic freedom.
Meanwhile, the structures of the digital cultural economy have shifted radically. With Web 2.0, the social mass media, powerful players have emerged whose economy is no longer based on restricting access to content by means of copyright, but on creating access to an immense pool of cultural products. In doing so, they design the conditions of access in such a way that their own profit interests are at the centre of attention, in which, for example, extensive collection and evaluation of data is central. The American political scientist Shoshana Zuboff speaks with regards to these developments of a new “surveillance capitalism.” Copyright disputes which may arise from this practice are resolved through years of litigation and the court rulings have subtly changed copyright pracitce (e. g. in the dispute between Authors Guild, Inc. v. Google, Inc. (2005-2015) on the question of whether Google is allowed to scan books and then make them accessible in extracts), or the rights holders are bought off with relatively modest sums of money (e. g. on Youtube or Spotify). In these all-dominant conflicts between the old and the new cultural industries, many artists are threatened to perish.
Creating Commons and the Utopia of Free Society
What is becoming ever more clear from the increasingly popular discussion of commons is that Creative Commons as a project has been based on a too narrow idea of what commons are. Creative Commons has equated commons with a pool of freely available resources. What has been overlooked, however, is that commons are primarily social institutions formed around such a pool of resources. Collective action is an essential characteristic of commons and contributes to a reorganisation of the social. Creative Commons, on the other hand, considers commons – in a typically neo-liberal way – exclusively as aggregated individual actions.
In a network of file sharing technologies and shadow libraries that has developed over a long period of time, a gigantic pool of works has emerged parallel to the events on the surface that has completely escaped the control of the rights owners and commercial platform providers. Some groundbreaking artistic projects are based on this, such as UbuWeb, the avant-garde archive, aaarg, a collection of texts on the subject of architecture, art, philosophy and media theory, or 0xdb, an experimental film database – to name just three.
UbuWeb, aaarg and 0xdb each designs different models of what artistic practice and cultural institutions could look like under post-copyright conditions. UbuWeb offers a fully accessible web archive that provides direct access to digitized artistic works. The collection contains thousands of works of art from the fields of fine arts, dance, performance, sound, concrete poetry, film and video. Ubu contextualizes them within curated sections and also contains accompanying academic essays. Although the project is run without any budget, it has become one of the most important reference points for 20th century avant-garde art; it is famous for being able to find everything that you won’t find anywhere else on Ubu. The face of the project is New York writer and artist Kenneth Goldsmith, who is also a key figure in determining the content. He does not feel obliged to any art historical categories, but combines personal preferences with pure pragmatism. In an interview he explains his artistic concept, which consists of applying archival activities as they form the basis of the collection, to his literary activities. Consequently,”Uncreative Writing” is the title of his book, in which he explains that intelligent re-contextualization is more relevant than the creation of what is supposedly new.
aaarg.org has a distinctly different orientation. The collection of largely theoretical and academic texts on the clearly defined subject areas of architecture, art, philosophy and media theory has evolved from a self-organised school, the Public School. The first collections consisted of the working materials of the various working groups and reading groups, and it was only gradually that the database, accessible only to invited users, developed a dynamic beyond the immediate educational environment. Nevertheless, important aspects of aaarg have emerged from its early use. It is the users themselves who compile and upload the content. They comment and discuss the texts and create personal collections. The aspect of interaction and community-building has always been a key feature of the project. The project is publicly represented by American artist Sean Dockray. Coming from a background in architecture, he is interested in experimenting with developing technical platforms on which people can meet, discuss texts and theories, and relevant content can be sensibly organized.
While UbuWeb and aaarg are based on relatively simple but well thought-out technological platforms, the 0xdb is a technologically much more demanding project. Based on the question of how to deal with large amounts of film material, Sebastian Luetgert and Jan Gerber have developed a complex platform to combine texts (subtitles, annotations) and film and to use an automatically generated timeline and visual fingerprints to enable a different approaches to film as material.
All three projects create complex installations of artistic vision, technological infrastructure and collective cultural practices, which can be described as new forms of cultural commons. They not only give an idea of what could be possible if we circumvent both the old and the new cultural industries, but also provide practical examples of what the potential of artistic practice under current material conditions could be. Here, a practice is designed in which artistic practice can be seen as a laboratory for a future society in which the categories of the classical cultural order no longer play a central role.
Cornelia Sollfrank and Felix Stalder, November 2017
German version published in: Blickpunkt. Zeitschrift der IG Bildende Kunst, Wien, Herbst 2017, Nr. 44, S.22-25
First research meeting of the Creating Commons project brought together artists, researchers and theoreticians for an intense 2 day workshop dealing with shadow libraries, repositories and archives. The aim of this meeting was to identify shared concerns and differing experiences, compare approaches, highlight risks and conflicts with the projects and in their relation to the wider context. We talked about the implications of the projects in terms of sustainability, legality and preservation and transformation of culture and knowledge, and relations and reservation towards the concept of the commons.
19.-22. october 2017, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel)
Participants (left to right):
top row: Cornelia Sollfrank & Felix Stalder (CC research project);
middle row: Annette Mächtel (UdK, Berlin), Annet Dekker (Universiteit van Amsterdam), Paul Keller (Kennisland, NL), Jan Gerber (0xdb.org), Rahel Puffert (Universtität Oldenburg), Marcell Mars (Memory of the World);
bottom row: Shusha Niederberger (CC research project), Olga Goriunova (University of London), Sebastian Lütgert(0xdb.org), Anna Calabrese (UdK, Berlin), Dusan Barok (Monoskop.org), Tomislav Medak (Memory of the World), Sean Dockray (aaaaarg.fail).
Ubu is a web repository for avant-garde art, founded by poet Kenneth Goldsmith in 1996. It is making available cultural resources, which are out of print, or “absurdly priced or insanely hard to procure“. It is „a distribution center for hard-to-find, out-of-print and obscure materials, transferred digitally to the web.“
Ubu has been starting from a repository of visual and concrete poetry, later sound poetry, growing in diverse directions, and it is constantly evolving.
Its understanding of what counts as avant-garde art and therefore can be included in Ubu is very open and apparently based on a broad interest and on opportunities.
It is difficult, and maybe inappropriate, to find a precise terminology of the nature of Ubu. It has aspects of a collection (its curated nature), but also hosts complete archives (Aspen Multimedia Magazine (1965-1971), provides space for projects (365 days project with obscure findings in aural recordings), and sections to other otherwise overlooked aspects (electronic music resources, featuring documents about methods and techniques of electronic and experimental sound – not aesthetics).
It also features curated sections by scholars and researchers in the field (ubu /editions), and offers anthological perspectives.
The content is not presented in a consistent taxonomy model, and cross-section links are offered or not.
In its diversity, it is like a negative space of traditional institution’s work. What is gone missing by public and private archives and libraries (whatever the cause) – can be found here.
The Poetry of Archiving, Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith
Nothing New Needs to be Created – Kenneth Goldsmith’s Claim to Uncreativity.
Monoskop is a wiki for collaborative studies of the arts, media and humanities.
Monoskop is a wiki, blog and a repository aggregating, documenting and mapping works, artists and intiatives related to the avant-gardes, media arts and theory and activism. Initially it focused on Eastern and Central Europe.
Built on a Wiki that everyone can contribute to and scrupulously curated by its spiritus movens Dušan Barok, it provides both an exhaustive, indexical overview of those fields and provides digital access to rare historic finds.
In parallel to the wiki, Monoskop maintains a blog repository featuring daily releases of books, journals or other printed archival material, some freshly digitized by Monoskop and some contributed by the users, authors and publishers.
Memory of the World is a network of interconnected shadow libraries, each maintained locally and independently from the others. They are integrated through a custom-made extension (named “let’s share books“) for “Calibre” an open source software for managing e-books. Calibre has a large and stable user base.
It’s intended to work both a practical resource, but also use the model of the public library was a way to frame a discussion about a post-IP cultural order.
The public library is:
– free access to books for every member of society
– library catalog
With books ready to be shared, meticulously cataloged, everyone is a librarian. When everyone is librarian, library is everywhere.
0xDB is an experimental – and to some degree imaginary – movie database. It is intended to help us rethink the future of cinema on the Internet, just as it tries to push the boundaries of what we understand as “web applications”. What 0xDB proposes is an entirely new approach to visualizing and navigating moving images, and we hope that it can serve as a point of reference for individuals and institutions who are dealing with large collections of films.
0xDB uses a variety of publicly accessible resources, like search engines and peer-to-peer networks, to automatically collect information about, and actual images and sound from, a steadily growing number of movies. At its core, it provides full text search within subtitled films and instant video previews of search results, while “timelines” – visual fingerprints of moving images – allow for spatial orientation and travel.”
Content management platform specialized in texts/books in the fields of architecture, art, philosophy, media theory; project-based sharing of reading material; part of the informal education project The Public School.
AAAARG is a conversation platform – at different times it performs as a school, or a reading group, or a journal.
AAAARG was created with the intention of developing critical discourse outside of an institutional framework. But rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them.
An Architektur: The term “commons” occurs in a variety of historical contexts. First of all, the term came up in relation to land enclosures during pre- or early capitalism in England; second, in relation to the Italian autonomia movement of the 1960s; and third, today, in the context of file-sharing networks, but also increasingly in the alter-globalization movement. Could you tell us more about your interest in the commons?
quote by Wolfgang Suetzl.
In addition to Felix’ research note on a misleading critique of the digital commons, I would like to add my interview here with media theoretician and philosopher Wolfgang Suetzl. In the context of a larger research project on the notion of “Excess” as elaborated by Georges Bataille, we talk about how excess and sharing are related and why none of this has anything to do with the sharing economy.
Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet, Olga Goriunova, Routledge, 2012
Departing from an organizational phenomenon, namely online ‘art platforms,’ Olga Goriunova – with the help of a variety of contemporary thinkers – reflects about a number of exemplary projects. In my understanding, her main objective is to discuss the selected projects in the framework of aesthetics (mainly), while, at the same time, trying not to narrow them down to conventional paradigms in order to keep their “aesthetic complexity” alive. Within this endeavour, it is of particular relevance that the platforms themselves as well as the production they are focussing on, are intrinsically related to both the materiality as well the ecology of networked media technology. Both the organizational structure and the techno-cultural objects it brings together would not exist without such technology. Furthermore, the platform and the type of practice that is being organized through it, mutually depend on each other. In this sense, an art platform does not just organize an existing field, but plays an important role in the emergence of the respective practice while remaining itself variable. The concept Goriunova is suggesting for her investigation, she calls “organizational aesthetics.” Continue reading “Organizational Aesthetics: Art Platforms and Cultural Production on the Internet by Olga Goriunova”
What does building an online archive have to do with writing poetry? For Kenneth Goldsmith it is the same thing. Goldsmith is a New York-based poet, writer, editor and founder of UbuWeb,1 an online repository of avant-garde art. His claim is that his way of writing poetry is exactly the same thing as he does when he is gathering, selecting, arranging and publishing material at the archive he has been building over the last seventeen years. Goldsmith’s artistic credo is that nothing new needs to be created: “In fact, it is the archiving and gathering and the appropriation of pre-existing materials that is the new mode of both writing and archiving.”
– Read Cornelia Sollfrank’s full text: Nothing New Needs to be Created – Kenneth Goldsmith’s Claim to Uncreativity. in: Melanie Bühler, Goethe Institut Washington (Eds.), No Internet – No Art. A Lunch Byte Anthology, Onomatopee, Eindhoven (2015), pp.40-50.
In her lecture, German artist Cornelia Sollfrank will give an introduction to the concept of the commons, however, putting an emphasis on digital commons. In the center of her investigations is the question of what artists can contribute to digital commons. The lecture will introduce Sollfrank’s ongoing research on art and commons and discuss specific artworks as examples. Each of the works addresses specific questions and embodies experimental and fragmentary solutions to the questions posed by neoliberal enclosures. Art here functions as a speculative tool; it thrives on imagination and aims to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations.
March 27th 2017 7PM
hexagram @ Engineering and Visual Arts Complex