Aesthetics, Commons and the Production of the Subject: An Interview with Cornelia Sollfrank and Felix Stalder


Two of the editors of the volume Aesthetics of the Commons (Diaphenes 2021) Cornelia Sollfrank and Felix Stalder discuss with WPCC journal the potential and meanings of the digital commons in creating new subjectivities and new imaginaries on and off the internet. Within this they question whether the focus on the aesthetics of the commons is useful for understanding phenomena such as ‘artistic shadow libraries’, pointing towards the need to build institutions for which ‘practices of commoning are central’. Also considered are the modern art system, copyright, and the corrosive individualism of Western modernity in the artistic sphere. Against these factors they note instead that, ‘the commons are structured through different relations, and care expresses that difference’. New economic approaches are needed in the arts supported by political actors which might include the ‘re-envisioning [of] public institutions, such as public broadcasting, as part of a commons’.

Keywords: commons, aesthetics, copyright, platform capitalism, shadow libraries, care, art system, decolonisation

Editorial Board W., (2021) “Aesthetics, Commons and the Production of the Subject: An Interview with Cornelia Sollfrank and Felix Stalder”, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 16(1). p.74-81. doi:

Full Article as PDF download

Book Launch “Aesthetics of the Commons”

We are very happy to announce the launch of our book Aesthetics of the Commons, online via Depot in Vienna.

Tuesday, 9 March 2021, 7 pm (CET)

Link to zoom meeting (will be active at 6.45 pm):

Book launch and discussion

What do a feminist server, an art space located in a public park in North London, a ‘pirate’ library of high cultural value yet dubious legal status, and an art school that emphasizes collectivity have in common? They all demonstrate that art can play an important role in imagining and producing a real quite different from what is currently hegemonic; that art in the post-digital has the possibility to not only conceive or proclaim ideas in theory, but also to realize them materially. The underlying social imaginaries ascribe a new role to art in society and they envision an idea of culture beyond the individual and its possessions.

Aesthetics of the Commons examines a series of artistic and cultural projects—drawn from what can loosely be called the (post)digital—that take up this challenge in different ways. What unites them, however, is that they all have a ‘double character.’ They are art in the sense that they place themselves in relation to (Western) cultural and art systems, developing discursive and aesthetic positions, but, at the same time, they are ‘operational’ in that they create recursive environments and freely available resources whose uses exceed these systems. The first aspect raises questions about the kind of aesthetics that are being embodied, the second creates a relation to the larger concept of the ‘commons.’ In Aesthetics of the Commons, the commons are understood not as a fixed set of principles that need to be adhered to in order to fit a definition, but instead as a ‘thinking tool’—in other words, the book’s interest lies in what can be made visible by applying the framework of the commons as a heuristic device.

Contributions to the book by Christoph Brunner, Daphne Dragona, Jeremy Gilbert, Olga Goriunova, Gary Hall, Ines Kleesattel, Rahel Puffert, Judith Siegmund, Sophie Toupin, Magdalena Tyzlik-Carver.

Aesthetics of the Commons. Felix Stalder, Cornelia Sollfrank, and Shusha Niederberger, eds. 2021. Zürich Berlin: Diaphanes
(available as softcover or open access PDF)

Online launch event with:

Olga Goriunova, cultural theorist, Royal Holloway University, London.
Shusha Niederberger, artist, researcher, and educator, Zurich.
Gerald Raunig, philosopher, Malaga/Zurich.
Cornelia Sollfrank, artist and researcher, Berlin.
Felix Stalder, cultural and media theorist, ZHdK, Zurich.

The event will be held in English.

This book is part of the research project “Creating Commons“, financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant: # 100016_169419), hosted and supported by the Institute for Contemporary Art ResearchZurich University of the Arts,

Research Meeting 1: “Archives and Libraries”

19-22 October 2017

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 (, Rahel Puffert (Universtität Oldenburg), Marcell Mars (Memory of the World);
bottom row: Shusha Niederberger (CC research project), Olga Goriunova (University of London), Sebastian Lütgert(, Anna Calabrese (UdK, Berlin), Dusan Barok (, Tomislav Medak (Memory of the World), Sean Dockray (

Venue: Hek (House of electronic Arts, Basel)


The research meeting opened with a public talk by Olga Goriunova (Reader in Digital Culture,  University of London). She started by revisiting her concept of “organizational aesthetics”, that is, the relationship between the construction of the online platform (or any other production/exhibition space) and the kinds of processes and art works that are produced and made public through it. She then extended this perspective to the relationship between the commons and art practices, in particular the changing social roles and subject positions (beyond the classic triple of artists, curator and audience) that the commons creates. She focused on the audience which is transformed even when not actively participating, introducing the notion of the “lurker”, a figure from online culture, denoting people who are subscribed to a forum or a mailing list, but only read and never actively post something, even though the technical set-up would not only allow but invite to do so. Rather than seeing this a negative, passive aspect Goriunova focused on the active role of producing a context in which posting and debating comes meaningful to begin with. The horizon of the commons, then, is not the naïve vision that everybody becomes a producer, but an expanded notion of what production is in the networked context and of keeping the hurdles low to move between different subject position within a continuum.

The two-day workshop, a mix of discussion in the plenary and focused working groups, started with a review of the artistic projects. They were all concerned with how to deal with large numbers of cultural works in the context of three interrelated crises: commercialization, copyright and cultural production. Commercialization, so the widely shared view, has been leading to a flattening of the cultural landscape by over-promoting a small types of works and undervaluing the large majority of culture, to the point of removing it from circulation. Copyright, with its peculiar notions of authorship and ownership, and the burdensome process of “clearing” rights for reuse, makes it exceedingly difficult to experiment with new ways of using digital information, particularly for established cultural institutions. Hence the need for artist not only to think about it, but to develop actively new forms. This was also motivated by what was seen as  crisis of cultural production, which created a need to develop new ways of interacting with very large numbers of material (rather than a small number of canonical/auratic works) which many of these projects had worked with and, second, with the need to develop new narratives that express and make visible cultural relationship across and beyond the disciplinary and geographic categories that dominated cultural discourse after WII.

All projects tried to address these three interrelated crises in different ways, while common themes emerged during the meeting. Against the concept of ownership with its associated ideas of exclusivity and control, notions of care and custodianship were proposed developed, both theoretically and practically.

The need to navigate a broken copyright regime has been a pressing issue for many years for most of the projects; the approaches ranged from intensive, long-term lobbying at the European level on behalf of memory institutions, to dealing cooperatively with open-minded rights holders (mainly small press publishers) who increasingly understand the value of the open access archives to produces a cultural context in which their works find an audience, to approaches to more or less simply ignoring copyright. There was an understanding that copyright limits urgently needed experimentation to find the right form for archives and institutions in the digital context, where the differences between the catalogue and the work, between meta data and data increasingly blurs.

A second major theme was the transformation of what started often as individual (art) projects into infrastructures that many people ome to depend – some projects have more than 150’000 registered users. Different approaches were discussed, ranging from technical solutions (such distributed files systems (DAT)), to inter-generational (handing over the project to a new generation) and institutional approaches (decentralization and multiplication of archives).

The third major theme focused on the relationship between institutional forms, community and changing subjectivities. These projects show that archives and libraries in the digital context, when allowed to move beyond their historical institutional form, look very different. Production and preservation become mutually constitutive and the notion of care extends from the archivist/librarian to the user, which brings them into a new relationship (commoners) centring round the concern for a resource (commons) and a range practices (commoning) aimed at sustaining care. Not all participants were equally at ease with framing their activities as commoning, pointing towards a tendency in the commons discourse of glossing over differences and idealizing consensus harmony.

This third cluster of concerns in particular laid important groundwork for the next two research meetings.

Interviews conducted with participants

Producing Organizational Aesthetics, with Olga Goriunova

The Practice of Sharing Knowledge, with Sean Dockray

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

Expanding Cinema, with Sebatian Lütgert & Jan Gerber

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

OPEN SCORES. How to program the Commons

21 September – 12 October 2019, Berlin

OPEN SCORES exhibition,, Berlin

This exhibition brings together 16 practices through which artists articulate their own forms of (digital) commons. From online archives, to digital tools/infrastructure and educational formats, the projects envision a (post-)digital culture in which notions of collaboration, free access to knowledge, sustainable use of shared resources and data privacy are central.

For the exhibition,  artists have developed a SCORE relating to their practice. A SCORE can have different meanings: It can be a general instruction, a working instruction, a performance instruction or an operating instruction. In any case, it is meant to lead to a realization of an intended action and as such is an interface between a human actor and an object/material/machine. And a SCORE can also be linked to a technical HOWTO document, in that it contains information on how to perform a specific task.

Within the exhibition, the newly developed SCORES add an aesthetic layer while pointing to the socio/political impact of the presented projects. The exhibition will also feature the interviews conducted as part of the research project as well as a temporary library on the subject of digital commons. Furthermore, there will be a program of talks, screenings, and workshops.

Dušan Barok (, Marcell Mars & Tomislav Medak (, Sebastian Lütgert & Jan Gerber (, Kenneth Goldsmith (, AAAAARG, Zeljko Blace (#QUEERingNETWORKing), Ruth Catlow & Marc Garrett (, Laurence Rassel (, Marek Tuszynski (Tactical Tech), Constant (Michael Murtaugh, Femke Snelting & Peter Westenberg), Stefanie Wuschitz (Mz* Baltazar’s Lab), Panayotis Antoniadis (, Alessandro Ludovico (, Eva Weinmayr (, Spideralex, Sakrowski (, Creating Commons, Johannes Kreidler, Alison Knowles.

Curated by Creating Commons (Shusha Niederberger, Cornelia Sollfrank, Felix Stalder)

Exhibition guide (PDF)

Talks, screenings, and workshops

Sat. 21 September 2019, Opening, 19:00
20:00 TEMPLATES, Music Performance, Johannes Kreidler
21:00 Let’s make a salad. Homage to Alison Knowles
22:00 DJ Gigsta

Sun. 22 September 2019, Workshop, 11:00 – 17:00
Wiki What?
Workshop with Dušan Barok. Collaborative building and maintenance of knowledge resources using as an example.

Fri. 27 September 2019, Talk and Screening, 21:00
Film as Digital Object.
Sebastian Lütgert in conversation with Cornelia Lund, followed by Pirate Cinema screening.

Sat. 28 September 2019, Workshop, 11:00 – 17:00
Sebastian Lütgert on the 0xdb film database.

Fri. 11 October 2019, Talk, 19:00
Thick Webs & Continuous Relays: Feminist Epistemologies for the Digital Commons
Isabel de Sena

Sat. 12 October 2019, Workshop, 11:00 – 17:00
Moments of Autonomy. Feminist educational practices for the digital commons
with Andrea Hubin (Kunsthalle Wien), Shusha Niederberger (Haus für elektronische Künste, Basel), Peggy Pierrot (e.r.g., Brussels), Daphne Dragona (transmediale), Safa Ghnaim (tactical tech), Stefanie Wuschitz (Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory, Vienna) and others.
Gerichtstr. 23 / Hof 5, 13347 Berlin (map)
Wed–Sat: 15:00 – 19:00


This exhibtion is part of the SNF-funded research project “Creating Commons” and supported by the Institute for Contemporary Art Research, (IFCAR), Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK).

Furtherfield — imitation is of little use to commonists.

Kevin Rittberger

Originally published in German, as “Furtherfield: Mit Nachahmung fangen Commonistinnen wenig an” in springerin 4/2019

The connection to a place has a material-productive and a strategic-symbolic function, particularly for a concrete utopia that does not simply paint the image but examines real practices as germ forms. The example of the London project-space Furtherfield can serve to describe an ethics of place, which means networking local activists and hackers with one another and thus interweaving eco-social cooperation with progressiveness, localization with decentralization. The project, initiated by artists in 1996, is a self-proclaimed “(de-)centre for art and technology” in London’s Finsbury Park. Collaborative practices and “DIWO” (Doing It With Others) are just as constitutive here as the development of a digital and local culture of the Commons. Furtherfield can thus be understood as a “commonistic” germ form – commonism understood less as ideology (1) than as an “inclusion society” which is to be permanently further developed. According to Simon Sutterlütti and Stefan Meretz (2), this is based on a different structure of cooperation, as well as on material and social preconditions that allow people to create their own living conditions. Inclusion is thus not merely an ethical-moral attitude, but the condition for action can be shaped collectively by all commonists.

For commonists, helping to shape an ethic of the place means neither unilaterally announcing a re-rooting of those uprooted by modernity – that would be the neo-traditional gesture – nor rejecting the connectivity of digital nomads – that used to be the New Economy spirit – but robbing both entities of their exclusive peaks. It means cultivating “response-ability” (Donna Haraway). The concern for a commonistic place and the maintenance of a platform require the voluntary activity of commonists who, beyond the rules of abstract property, take care of the general availability of goods, resources, digital technologies, codes, etc.

Kevin Rittberger, Community in Progress II. Syntegrity, 2016 Theater Basel & Critical Media Lab. Foto: Samuel Hanselmann | FHNW HGK IXDM

The concern for the place is the concern for all commoners who can assert their needs in that place or on that platform and contribute according to their individual abilities. Exploitation and competition, property and profit, containment and exclusivity can be unlearned here by initiating and prospective commonists together. Commercial providers of the same goods, resources, codes, etc. are “out-cooperated” (Sutterlütti/Meretz) by countering their enclosures with “dis-enclosures”, as I would like to call these forms of collectivization of formerly privately-held resources. Dis-enclosures are dependent on the permanence and resilience of the Commonists if they do not want to be one-off projects. Dis-enclosures can counteract privatizations and employ a community concept that makes it possible to overcome the fetishes of growth and competition. Political state-transformation theories cannot think of this constituting process.

Commonists rarely begin with imitation as a repetition of dichotomies proven in capitalist modernity – such as individuality vs. collectivity, private enterprise vs. nationalization. They are interested in setting their own rules, designing their own stories, rituals, and exercise systems with speculative, dis-enclosing, and pre-mitative activities that contribute to preservation – and expansion! – of the commons are interested. With the concept of pre-mitation, I propose to regard the initiating moment of Furtherfield also as aesthetic moment.

Furtherfield interweaves digital communities with non-digital ones in a way that corridors emerge; corridors that connect places and between which decentralization prevails.

Furtherfield is also experimenting with blockchains with which the gathering groups of people can make life and business more democratic, more transparent and less hierarchical. In this way, blockchains can help to design trustworthy paths or corridors in the midst of the total exploitation desert called Big Data, but they are neither immune to (e.g. company-internal) hierarchies, nor do they represent applications far removed from the market. The question also remains as to who programs the so-called consensus algorithm and organizes trust in complex, knotted relationship networks. But commonists who have renounced cultural pessimism can live with the fundamental susceptibility of technology (here: blockchain) or cultural technology (here: self-organisation) to abuse of power. The possible self-organization of networked communities as basic units that reject bureaucratic centralism seems important to them. Corridors are important when left-liberal zeitgeist prefers the nomadic to the identitarian, but right-wing populist reaction time turns the need for rootedness into an absolute. Here, Furtherfield works with two strategies in one and the same place: Finsbury Park as an important public recreation site for its residents, which includes migrants from a great many countries, has its own cultural practices; these encounter the dis-enclosing strategies of the digital commonists – in the Community Media Lab Furtherfield Commons, in an exhibition space in the middle of the park, in an online magazine, and on a mailing list – and continue to develop cooperatively. The communities are permeable and enrich each other. The germ form of the other society becomes noticeable precisely in the penetration of the various practices that take place in one place. Each format creates an assemblage of people, technology and environment that benefits commoning as a whole. What is decisive is sustainable practice.

Furtherfield, as can be asserted with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Deborah Danowski (3) thus constructs a “locally functioning folk machine” that slowly but effectively undermines established forms of rule and replaces them with a better practice in the sense of a network of peers. These (pre-)figurations of the future are recognizable and applicable from the outside as pre-mitative practices. For an aesthetic of commoning, this means the following: The mimetic capacity leaves imitation; the emulation of the old becomes obsolete, de-learning and re-learning intertwine, pre-mitation is created and makes transformational processes visible, so that from now on imitation would also be possible again: as imitation of the new. And so commoning does not only mean the self-administration of the resource or the platform, which, whether “rival” or “not rival”, is open for use by as many people as possible and does not exclude anyone through an abstract concept of property (or license). What is also decisive is the symbolic, performative and aesthetic quality of the gathering bodies in one place, including those that are not (yet) present, those that are still excluded, but for which corridors are created: Access authorization, residence permit, work that secures their livelihood and, last but not least, care community.

The initiators of Furtherfield, Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett, refer historically to Marx’s concept of “original accumulation” and the enclosures it entails. Their reference back to the “levellers” is decidedly directed against these enclosures, which to this day take place worldwide and are constantly imitated by neoliberal governments and transnational corporations, whether shock-like or reformist. Furtherfield creates here a place of counter-movement. The practice of permaculture, for example, is no less relevant here than the insight into global value-labour chains and areas of use of drones, the cultivation of corresponding peer-to-peer practices, and the self-understanding of peers beyond discipline or field of activity. For Furtherfield, digital commons help to hack social reality, while the regularity of the commons (à la Elinor Ostrom) can also help to protect open access through reciprocity from being commercially enclosed. Uncompensated cultural practices can thus be made usable again, and digital practices do not disappear somewhere in cyberspace, but link as relevant empirical values back to social practices and the possibility of resistance against hegemonic exploitation systems. The site and the platform Furtherfield succeeds through stability and resonance in outgrowing the utopian precondition and in manifesting itself as embodied or within the assemblies of physical bodies.

1 Vgl. Nico Dockx/Pascal Gielen (Hg.), Commonism. A New Aesthetics of the Real. Amsterdam 2018.
2 Vgl. Simon Sutterlütti/Stefan Meretz, Kapitalismus aufheben. Eine Einladung, über Utopie und Transformation neu nachzudenken. Hamburg 2018.
3 Vgl. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro/Deborah Danowski, In welcher Welt leben? Ein Versuch über die Angst vor dem Ende. Berlin 2019.

From Participation to Appropriation

Felix Stalder

Originally published in German as “Von der Teilnahme zur Aneignung. Ein Horizont künstlerischer Praxis?” in springerin 4/2019

Putting the focus on the manifold forms of appropriation of a shared resource opens up a horizon on artistic practice beyond functionalization and heteronomy, which so often characterize the practice of participatory projects.

Ubu in Athen, TOP TENS Ausstellungsansichten, Onassis Cultural Center
Copyright: Andreas Simopoulos for Onassis Stegi

Since the 1960s, when the cultural order of modernity – McLuhan’s “Gutenberg Galaxy” – began to slip, the concept of “participation” has played an important role in expanding the practices of art and redefining the roles and relationships of artists and audiences. Fluxus artists opened up the execution of the artwork with the help of instructions for action (“scores”), socially and politically oriented “post-studio” practices involved the audience or other non-artistic actors in the production of artistic “situations”, interactive art made the active participation of the viewer a condition of reception. Under the banner of “relational art”, participation, reduced to an unspecific shared “time to be lived through”, became the actual focus of artistic action.

This development was neither accidental nor isolated, but embedded in major social changes. On the one hand, the emergence of a media infrastructure, that focused on mass self-communication and favored modes of subjectivation beyond the silent recipient. On the other hand, the rise of the communicative and informational dimensions of work and the associated increasing valorization of social and cultural everyday activities that had previously been far removed from the market.

Critique of participation

Along with the utopias and disillusionments that accompanied these processes over the last 50 years, the idea of participation in art also underwent a revaluation. While at the beginning, and to some extent still today, it was used for the breaking up of traditional cultural configurations and power relations, participation was also taken into service by new, flexible relations of exploitation and power. At the latest, the empty idea of participation in Nicolas Bourriaud’s approach to “relational aesthetics” (1998) sparked a fundamental critique of the idea of participation as an artistic strategy. For example, Claire Bishop (2012) emphasized the compatibility of participatory approaches with neo-liberal forms of control through activation and the if not direct economization, then al least functionalization of art in line with the changing agendas of exhibition venues and funding institutions. On the recipient side, Bishop noted that the willingness to participate testifies to a problematic tendency toward “voluntary subordination to the artists’ will, and of the commodification of human bodies in a service economy.” The mode of subordination comes from the fact that it is usually the artist who determines the conditions of participation in advance, and confronts the counterpart with an already predetermined situation, leaving him/her only the possibility of either complying with the conditions set or of refusing to participate. This is not real freedom. For what at first glance looks like a relinquishment of power – after all, certain elements are left to third parties – turns out, on closer inspection, to be the exercise of another form of power: to define the conditions of interaction, the social and technical protocols, and thus to align them from the outset with one’s own interests, without ever having to tell the participants what they have to do. Commodification comes from the fact that unpaid voluntary activities are also a form of work whose added value can be organized elsewhere. The social mass media have institutionalized these two principles very successfully, with all the problems that we can clearly see today.

Atelier populaire, numéro 3, 1968

Against this use of art by curators and funding agencies, Bishop calls for a renewed autonomy of art, which as a symbolic activity should always be a step away from society. However, she remains vague as to what such an autonomy of artistic action might look like. Many interpret this as a return to a rather conventional conception of artists and artwork, perhaps also because it fits very well into the conservative zeitgeist.

The horizon of appropriation

However, this does not have to be the only conclusion that can be drawn from the not unwarranted criticism of participation. A number of ambitious artistic projects examined by the Creating Commons research project are also abandoning the idea of participation. They focus on the idea of the “free resource” and the practice of appropriation, either explicitly or implicitly. Whereby here it is not the appropriation by a privileged artist subject that is central as in the classical “appropriation art”, but the process of appropriation itself is opened.

Kenneth Goldsmith, who has been running UbuWeb, an online archive of the audiovisual “avant-garde”, since 1997, does not offer any possibilities for the users of the archive to contribute themselves. He alone makes all the decisions from the technical to the curatorial, as he explained in an interview with Cornelia Sollfrank (2013). Here, the “wisdom of the crowds” is not the focus, nor is a multi-perspective selection to be made. No, in the age of exuberant chaos, Goldsmith stresses, it is the artist’s task to go in and create order, that is, to develop a context in which things are put back into a specific context of meaning. At the same time, however, it is not simply a definitive, timeless selection based on the authority of the expert, but a highly situated one. Goldsmith never tires of emphasizing that as an artist he is actually the wrong person to operate an art-historical archive and that strictly speaking it is not an archive at all (with the claim to long-term preservation). Rather, this “personal project” could be over from one day to the next and UbuWeb could disappear from the net again, for whatever reason. The suggestion is that everyone should download what is important to them personally to protect their own choices from disappearing. To make this practicable, a download link is added to each work. However, the possibility of downloading is not only relevant because of the ephemeral structure of the archive, but because it allows anyone to step out of the role of the recipient and transfer the work into a completely different context of use.

Ubu in Athen, TOP TENS Ausstellungsansichten, Onassis Cultural Center
Copyright: Andreas Simopoulos for Onassis Stegi

In fact, in order to use UbuWeb one neither has to share Goldsmith’s theory of uncreativity (2011) as context displacement nor in any other way subscribe to the framework he sets. One can also simply appropriate the resource(s) and do whatever one wants with it, in one’s own context. Nevertheless, UbuWeb is not only a functional platform, a normal file hoster, but symbolically as well as practically an investigation of what artistic practice can mean today, under the conditions of a chaotic, exuberant and commercialized information sphere. Accordingly, the figure of the artist does not disappear. On the contrary, Goldsmith himself has meanwhile become a star, teaching at elite universities and being invited to the White House. But he, and this is new, no longer alone defines the framework within which a user can move.

The idea of free resources plays a central role in this shift. It provides the common ground from which anyone can create their own highly context-specific realities. It is, therefore, a question of a new articulation of the relationship between the singular and the collective. While many participatory projects are based on the utopia of the (temporary) community, the role of the artist as the author of this one community remains untouched. Accordingly, the added value of participation usually does not accumulate with the participants, but with the artists. The possibilities of appropriation create a different relationship. The role of the artist as the author of the resource remains strong, but the users have the possibility to transfer it into their own context, which can exist with or without a reference to the “source”, or to function as the author themselves and thus clearly gain freedom of action.

Basically, the practice of appropriation could be described as a kind of “personalization”. Things are brought into a form in which they correspond to the situatedness of the user. In contrast to personalization as practiced by the “social mass media”, control over this process does not lie with the central provider but with the periphery, with each individual. Even if this does not automatically eliminate the problems of subjugation and value creation so clearly visible in participatory projects today, the shift towards appropriation creates a new dimension of freedom whose possibilities are neither artistically nor politically exhausted.


Bishop, Claire, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London: Verso 2012.

Bourriaud, Nicolas, Esthétique relationnelle. Dijon: Les Presses du reel 1998.

Creating Commons;

Goldsmith, Kenneth, Uncreative Writing. Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press 2011;

Sollfrank, Cornelia, The Poetry of Archiving, Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, 2013;

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 of 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.

Interview conducted by Felix Stalder, October 22 2017, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel).

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

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.

Interview conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, October 22, 2017, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel).

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

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.

Interview conducted by Felix Stalder, October 22, 2017, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel).

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

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.

Interview conducted by Cornelia Sollfrank, October 19, 2017, HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel).

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

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 Ph.D. from the Faculty of Communication and Media Studies of the University of Athens.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. For any other use please contact us.

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)”