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?

CS: Within the framework of my practice-based PhD, I focused for five years on the paradox that copyright is intended to stimulate and protect artistic creativity, whereas it is often more than obstructive for all art forms that take recourse to existing works – revise them, re-work them, appropriate them is some form; it makes them illegal or moves the artists into a legal gray area, in which they have to bear all the risks themselves. This legal insecurity in turn affects aesthetic practice, which means that the law intervenes in the development of art in a regulating and normative way.

The change of perspective followed from the insight that artists play an important role in the discourse about intellectual property – not least of all as a figure of argumentation for the interests of the content industries – but within the framework of informational capitalism, in which it is a matter of completely economicizing knowledge, education and culture, the problems described above are marginal. Although these problems also bring system-immanent contradictions between the different business models to light – those who market content and those who depend on free content to operate their platforms – stylizing artists as victims of copyright or claiming the role of superuser with special rights for them, does not represent a contemporary-critical-enlightened understanding of art. Instead I began to become interested in the question of what artists can contribute to maintaining and producing commonly usable goods – the commons. In the course of GWYDH I am, first of all, mapping and contextualizing these kinds of projects, while attempting to think about a concept of art that could connect them.

FS: The projects that you investigate in GWYDH all create their own archives in very different ways – often marginal cultural resources. What connects and what separates these projects?

CS: As the title already indicates, I am essentially interested in projects that provide a piece of infrastructure, a tool or a kind of service, which makes cultural goods accessible; in other words, not so much individual artistic expression or projects that have only a symbolic effect, but actual openings within existing (distribution) systems. In every case, though, the point is the free circulation of knowledge and culture, from which not only the individual artists themselves profit (as was typical for appropriation art, for example), but rather the entire public sphere. The spectrum is broad and ranges from archives and repositories all the way to digital tools and various forms of conveying knowledge – manuals or formats for self-organized learning, such as workshops, free schools, etc. Here Internet platforms play an important role for organization and communication, and a critical way of dealing with digital technologies is the foundation.

What the projects have in common is that they critique existing conditions in their purposefulness. They provide something that is missing in society – and that cannot take place in any location, for legal or economic reasons, other than in art.

FS: This raises the question: Is it art, or is the boundary to services crossed here?

CS: Art is a discursive construction! Drawing a boundary between art and non-art is the business of art theories. Since art is more than imitation, theory has always been necessary to justify the art status of a work. This means that in order to enable new forms of art, it is necessary to expand or shift the parameters of the discourse while referring to familiar theories and historiographies at the same time – while naturally going beyond them. The question of whether something is art or not thus becomes a moot point, and the question should instead be turned productively to ask “who” defines what art is/should be and with which interests? “Who” empowers themselves to produce these kinds of inclusions and exclusions?

Artists often make practical offers; they make connections between subjectivity and society in ever new and unfamiliar ways, thus irritating the traditional and established understanding of “aesthetic design” with their claim to art. But it is only when what they do also ties into the art discourse that they have a chance for this “other” to also become art. This may be a reason why artists working on new forms of art are also often interested in art theory. They don’t want to leave the power of definition up to others. I see GWYDH in this tradition. It is an artistic attempt to identify new forms of art and place them in a context, and to newly envision the autonomy of art in light of the creative industries and the complete economicization of culture.

FS: If we follow your argument that these are artistic projects, then the question of the aesthetic dimension becomes obvious. Where would you situate this?

CS: That is a central question of the project, but I would not presume to answer it by myself. Instead, I seek engagement with colleagues as part of the project. And that is also characteristic of the GWYDH projects; in fact, they not only offer a useful service, but also create a discourse around their respective themes – Marcell Mars, for example, when he examines how the idea of a public library has changed in the digital age and offers suggestions for a contemporary version. The projects thus have two aspects: a purpose-oriented, practical aspect, and a discursive-symbolic aspect. This can be taken as the starting point in any case, if we want to think about the aesthetic dimension.

I also think the concept of autonomy is important in this context, because the artists act on their own self-commission. Unlike the classic genius, however, they act with the claim of having an impact on society. In this way they become rebellious subjects, who do not act in their own interest, but rather in the interest of broad sections of society. For this, the role of art in society has to be more precisely defined, for which references to certain idealistic values also suggest themselves. For this whole, not yet entirely developed endeavor, I have proposed the term “Post-IP Aesthetics”. This highlights that a historical reference is important, but at the same time it also indicates a break with traditional aesthetics – with which predominant legal norms are also not infrequently transgressed. In the projects I associate with this, however, I see not only a critique, but also the indication of a utopia, a concrete suggestion for how it could be different. That could be a further aspect in the discussion of the aesthetic dimension.

Important references for me are the historical avant-garde in post-revolutionary Russia or the post-Marxist aesthetics. Marcuse is inspiring, because he justifies the autonomy of art specifically in its responsibility toward society in his essay “Die Permanenz der Kunst” (1977) (translated into English as “The Aesthetic Dimension”). I like this ambivalence of an art concept that necessarily depends on being an exception from social conditions on the one hand and claims to want to influence them on the other.

Taking liberty – which is found in the GWYDH projects specifically in the transgression of existing norms – transcends the conditions, at least in a small area. In this way, the projects can claim a model character. They provide illustrative drafts and have the effect of amplifying and spreading new norms, which have yet to become law. Through acting freely, the artists practice not only an altered understanding of art; they also create a new relation to reality and thus new realities.

FS: Your work largely takes place in academic contexts; formally, GWYDH consists of a series of interviews. So what do you see your work as being: artistic research? Should something like this be separated from “normal” artistic work?

CS: I do what I do as an artist, and I think it is a hybrid between scholarly work and art. Formally, scholars could also do what I do, conduct interviews, write, organize workshops, teach, but the perspectives I have and the issues that are important to me are artistic; no scholar is researching in the area that I have defined for my research. In addition, as an artist I can deal much more freely with my methods or the presentation of my results. Artistic research can be a helpful term for this, if it is understood as giving artists more free space, so that they do not have to immediately produce exhibition art or urban furnishings or contribute to city marketing and event culture. It can be a temporary free space for expanding the art concept – but economicization and exploitation logic will not stop at that either.