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<nettime> Copies & contexts in the age of cultural abundance
Rasmus Fleischer on Tue, 5 Jun 2007 17:09:18 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Copies & contexts in the age of cultural abundance


This is the text from a performance at last week's Reboot conference  
in Copenhagen, by Magnus Eriksson and Rasmus Fleischer. It mainly  
circles around the question of the meaning of "live performance" in a  
context of universalized reproduction of recorded music.

- - -


PERFORMANCE:
COPIES & CONTEXTS IN THE AGE OF CULTURAL ABUNDANCE

We are both co-founders of Piratbyrån, a Swedish group that has been  
around for four years. Piratbyrån explores how file-sharing and other  
copying technologies interact with creativity and change how people  
relate to everyday culture. We analyze tendencies and cases and  
discuss possible future scenarios and opportunities.

Internationally we are mostly known for starting up the The Pirate  
Bay, which we no longer run but are in close contact with. By this  
and many other projects, campaigns, performances, talks and media  
appearances, we have intervened in the discussion known as "the file- 
sharing debate".

Almost exactly a year ago, at the time of the last Reboot conference,  
The Pirate Bay was taken down in a controversial raid that involved  
about 180 confiscated servers and pressure on the Swedish government  
from US officials and lobby groups. Still today, over 100 servers  
remain in custody and the prosecution is just about to be delayed for  
several months more.

The raid was followed by demonstrations just three days after co- 
hosted by Piratbyrån and other piracy organisations as well as  
political parties from different sides of the Swedish political  
spectrum. At the very same day, The Pirate Bay came back online.

Since then, a lot of light has been put on the alleged Swedish  
"pirate safe haven" and we have had an extensive public debate in  
Sweden on file-sharing issues. Although it's great that we have this  
debate, it is often stuck in pre-internet frameworks, copyright  
abstractions and outdated perspectives.

Piratbyrån is often perceived as being primarily anti-copyright and  
we often have to answer questions on how artists should make a living  
if there was no copyright. On this topic we have very little to say  
for several reasons: Talking about that implicates that we have (at  
least until now) a perfectly working copyright economy that has  
somehow provided wages for artists, an economy that would be  
nullified by a future removal of copyright laws.

What we instead prefer to talk about is the present: The concrete and  
complex workings of cultural economies, the cracks and grey zones in  
contemporary copyright, and the massive sharing of files that is  
already going on.

In fact, we got so tired of answering the questions of right versus  
wrong, that this spring on the last night of April, we climbed  
Stockholm's highest mountain in order to perform a kind of ritual.  
There we burned and buried the very same file-sharing debate that we  
had initiated four years ago, read a communique, and celebrated the  
ancient Walpurgis festivity around a fire. It's all documented in a  
video, that we will now show some brief clips from.

[[[ VIDEO DOCUMENTATION WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES:  http:// 
www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnaol8QQruw  ]]]

As I said before, we buried the debate by performing this ritual  
since we felt that the debate was stuck in the same frozen positions  
it had been for years. Still discussing if file-sharing was right or  
wrong, if we should allow it or stop it, if it was good or evil. But  
to us the consequences of file-sharing, or rather the general  
accessibility of culture today, is much more far reaching than just  
another way for consumers to get access to content. Today we are  
going to talk about how it shapes the very ways we use, value and  
experience culture, especially music.

Since we used The KLF as a soundtrack for the film, and since we  
built a fire, we sent this video to Bill Drummond from the KLF. He  
sent us a very interesting response, saying that he enjoyed and  
understood the message. Then he attached this letter:

- -
AN INVITATION
A time has arrived where we can (in theory and almost in practise)  
listen to any recorded music, from the entire history of recorded  
music, wherever, whenever while doing whatever we want.

This has meant our relationship with music is rapidly and  
fundamentally changing faster than it has done for many decades.

This is good for numerous reasons.

But a by-product of this is, recorded music will no longer contain  
the meaning it once held for us. This will entail it no longer gives  
us what we need and desire from it. Once a music has lost it?s  
meaning it has no value.

Thus as we edge our way deeper into the 21st Century we will begin to  
want music that can not be listened to wherever, whenever while doing  
whatever. We will begin to seek out music that is both occasion and  
place specific, music that can never be merely a soundtrack. We will  
demand music where we are no longer just the consumers, unwitting or  
otherwise.

The era of recorded music is now passing and within the next decade  
it will begin to look and sound like a dated medium. Recorded music  
will be perceived as an art form very much of the 20th Century.

The above notions excite me. This excitement has brought about The17.  
The17 rejects all that the era of recorded music had to offer and  
attempts to embrace the unknown opportunities of what lies ahead.

Please accept my invitation to embrace the unknown opportunities of  
what lies ahead in whatever way excites you.

Bill Drummond
www.the17.org
- -

This is not only due to file-sharing but the general presence of free  
music. You can't walk around the city, enter a store or café without  
hearing music. Today, free music is omni-present. All this decreases  
the value of recorded music, perhaps of music-in-itself in general.  
We will probably no longer hear a new song, a new sound or a new  
style of music that will turn our world upside down as music has done  
many times in the past.

The pop-star Momus touches upon this when he summarized the music  
year of 2006 on his blog:

"If music didn?t exactly die in 2006, it certainly felt sidelined,  
jilted, demoted, decentred, dethroned as the exemplary creative  
activity, the most vibrant subculture."

Are Momus (born 1960) and Drummond (born 1953) just getting old and  
bored? Maybe, but there seems to be more to it. Momus concludes by  
quoting his artist friend Anne Laplantine, who expresses similar  
feelings towards the uncertain state of music with these words:

"I think we?re also living now in a transitional period which I?m not  
sure I can define. All I know is that I feel the need to wait a bit."

We agree with Drummond, Momus and Laplantine that we are in the  
middle of some kind of transition. Something that has been  
fundamental to humans is losing its meaning, and only the active  
destruction of it may open up ways to create new meaning ? the  
philosophical term for such an ambiguous process is nihilism.

Ernst Jünger once wrote about overcoming nihilism, that optimism and  
pessimism should not be considered as opposites, but can rather be  
complementary ways of moving forward to new possibilities. Thus,  
disgust and enthusiasm are both feelings which have their legitimate  
place when we assess the contemporary state of music and what  
digitalisation does with it.

What clearly stands in the way of a successful transition is,  
however, copyright-centred reasoning with its extremely biased idea  
of creativity. As long as we limit our discussion to the rights or  
wrongs with copyright, we will continue to reduce cultural processes  
to the end products they leave behind. Because the only things that  
count, from the standpoint of copyright, are these end products which  
were once called "artworks" and today usually goes under the  
disgusting name of "content".

Books, records and pictures are all end products. But not  
performances, communication, festivities, or anything else happening  
in the moment, in real time. These more volatile or ephemeral aspects  
of culture basically falls outside the scope of copyright.

The copyright industry wants us to mentally reduce culture to  
content, while ignoring the context. They want to define "creativity"  
as the ability to create as many reproducible end products as  
possible, while everything performative is degraded to an  
instrumental status. That perspective is not only boring and sterile,  
it is also dangerous for the very idea of internet as a communication  
medium. Sadly, that perspective is also getting very popular on the  
top political level of the European Union. The recent so-called  
"Strategy for a creative Europe" concludes with the simple equation  
that using bigger weapons in the war against piracy will naturally  
lead to more creativity (that is, more "content"), which will in turn  
lead to economic growth, and save us all when the factories move to  
Asia.

Record companies want to rechannel our musical passions, from the  
excess of the living moment, into stockpiling of dead objects. George  
Bataille brilliantly analysed, 60 years ago, how such denial of  
sacrifice will only lead to its much more fatal return in form of war.

However, we'd like to emphasize that not only the copyright industry  
is guilty of copyright-centred reasoning ? also many copyright  
critics fall into the trap, by taking a "consumerist" standpoint.  
It's all too easy to polemize "for" file-sharing (as if that was  
needed) with arguments about broadened access to copyrighted  
material, something which will only strengthen the abstracted and  
reductive idea of culture as accumulation of content.

Avantgarde composer John Cage ? who was otherwise reluctant to make  
any value judgements, once presented a clear hierarchy of musical  
activities. Basically, he put participation over passive consumption:

"It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to  
perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to  
misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment or acquisition of  
'culture'".

This quote works on two levels. On the one hand we can agree, and  
applaud, Cage for creating this scale, for daring to value different  
uses of culture differently. His argument is in line with Gregory  
Batesons definition of information as "difference that makes a  
difference". But we also want to pose a question to Cage about the  
hierarchy: Can really making and performing a piece of music be  
seperated; and in the case of your music, performing and listening?  
And can one musical experience only fall into one category?

Copyright ? based as it were on literary text and not musical  
experience ? built its own peculiar world of abstractions, where the  
composer, the performer and the producer appeared as three different  
roles, each represented by their own copyright collective. But today  
they converge into the singular figure of "the bedroom producer".

A convergence driven by the development of recording and mixing  
technology, from the multitrack tape recorders of the 1960s, to the  
contemporary average computer able to simulate what only some years  
ago demanded very expensive studio time.

What does technology do with participation? Today, it should be  
obvious that such a question is wrongly put. Different technologies  
affect musical cultures and habits in different ways. But during  
large parts of the 20th century, many music professionals and  
especially their unionist representatives assumed the opposite: that  
all sound recording, editing and transmission technologies basically  
were parts of one singular tendency, usually named "mechanization".  
Thus technology was understood as the opposite of performance, in a  
very pessimistic way. Synthesizer players and discjockeys were  
initially not allowed into the narrow definition of musical  
performers, but were rather seen as something external, threatening  
to displace genuine musicianship altogether. We can exemplify with  
the following words, written by a music sociologist as late as 1989:

"As the rationalization of technique continues to its logical  
conclusion, a specific musician is no longer necessary. Technology  
can create a simulated musical world without performers. /.../  
Through technology, music can be removed from the web of human  
relationships in which it has been traditionally rooted"

We must remember that live performances were though of as the way to  
make money as an artist, up until the CD came into the picture. Then,  
during the golden age of the CD ? which in retrospect looks like a  
short historical parenthesis ? record companies in their reasoning  
reduced live performances to marketing spectacles, which did only  
exist in order to sell more recordings.

Thinking of reproduced recordings as the core product fitted well  
with the discourse about so-called creative industries, popularized  
around Tony Blair's election victory in 1997. Creative industries  
were defined as businesses ?which have a potential for wealth and job  
creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual  
property?. Clearly, what that politics favoured in the area of music  
was not live performances, but end products. Relegating real-time  
experience to such a secondary position, as was increasingly the  
trend during the end of the 20th century, was something unique in the  
history of music.

But since year 2000, when the file-sharing explosion began, the  
pendulum has turned the other way. Turnover for concerts and  
festivals have went up to the same extent that record sales has gone  
down; as has been demonstrated with hard data from Danish copyright  
collectives. And more and more managers and artists are confirming  
that the pendulum is swinging back; many has already started to  
regard recorded music as mainly a way to market performances, where  
the real money are. Beyond doubt, we witness an economic shift, to  
some extent, from reproduced objects to real-time experiences. Such a  
shift inevitably brings a move of resources from the hits towards the  
long tail, as each artist can only be at one place at a time.

To us, this is great news. It promises greater diversity and less  
conformity. To the record industry it's obviously bad news, and when  
this topic is brought up, they typically start arguing on behalf of  
all the poor songwriters who supposedly do not perform at all.  
However, we shouldn't spend too much energy trying to prove that the  
changes are benefiting a majority of all musical artists (if only  
because it's impossible to quantifty the abstracted group of "the  
artists"). A more interesting question regards what we mean with "live".

Why is it so hard to discuss live music's role in the music economy,  
without always falling back at the image of an rock band standing on  
a stage in front of an audience, with someone selling ugly t-shirts  
in the back of the room? According to rock ideology, live music  
authenticates the recorded object, and the recording is imagined as a  
document of something that once happened live. But the recorded  
object may not be re-performed, according to this ideology. (Just  
think about the silly character of the air guitar player...)

This dualism between live and recording is pure mystification, and an  
obstacle for any serious attempt to reconsider the role of the  
performative. Obviously, examples from DJ culture works a lot better.  
For the dub DJ, the sounds produced by operating echo deks or  
turntables are not less "live" or real-time, than the sounds produced  
by a human voice, a trumpet or whatever.

But this is not about putting different musical genres against each  
other. Culture, including end products like music recordings, always  
gets its meaning from humans, in real-time and contained within the  
limits of a certain context ? regardless if the context is a physical  
or virtual space, or if it includes just a couple of persons or  
millions of them.

It is not so much about a return of living music on behalf of the  
dead, recorded object. Instead, what happens is that the concepts of  
live, communication, interactivity and performability in themselves  
become transformed by technology. The main challenge is about how to  
widen our definition of the "live". How can music as a real-time  
experience be re-thought, as an aesthetic and an economic activity?

Our experience from the copyfight is that the discussion has focused  
entirely on the production of new culture, while ignoring how culture  
is used and by whom. So the real question should be: How do we create  
meaningful contexts around music?

Let's try to define what a live performance is: Something that  
happens in real-time, a specific time and place. Something  
establishing an relation between different people sharing a similar  
taste for something. An experience you are part of creating. These  
features can also be observed in the actual uses of recorded music;  
in the domains where people share music, meta-data, tags, ratings and  
stories.

Think about sharing musical taste with Last.fm. The most significant  
effect it has on us, is that it suddenly makes listening to MP3's a  
two-way activity: While music is streaming from our loudspeakers,  
metadata are sent back to a central server, continually building on  
your personal profile, which you know will be used not only by the  
system for calibrating you personal radio, but also by other humans  
to judge you. In short, that makes listening to MP3's a performative  
act. Listening overtakes traits from artistic performance, to some  
extent.

Do we actually want this? Let's leave that question open. Maybe it  
would be nicer to keep a more ephemeral way of listening, less  
focused on producing visible metadata, while letting the will to  
perform take other outlets. Anyhow, this is something we should talk  
a lot more about.

The time and place of culture today is dictated by digital media.  
Culture, as human communication par excellence, is as it were  
technical. A live gig, a club or a conference today can hardly be  
imagined without internet buzz, friends coordinating online, blogs  
writing it up, digital cameras and mobile phones documenting it and  
users commenting afterwards.

So what we have here is not so much, or at least not only, technology  
being humanized but new domains of the human experience being  
subjected to a new technology.

What we are looking for now is something completely different from  
the imaginary utopia of a perfectly working copyright economy, that  
all coordinates remain the same, only shifted to a new map. What we  
are looking for here is realistic utopia. From an analysis of the  
present condition think the unthought. There are still hidden  
performativities remaining to be discovered!

MAGNUS ERIKSSON & RASMUS FLEISCHER
magnus {AT} piratbyran.org, rasmus {AT} piratbyran.org
Copenhagen, 1 June 2007



http://www.piratbyran.org/?view=articles&id=114
http://www.reboot.dk/artefact-2318-en.html
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1098484580210269821
http://copyriot.se/reboot9/Reboot9.pdf

http://www.piratbyran.org/walpurgis/
http://nettime.freeflux.net/blog/archive/2007/05/05/nettime-four- 
shreddings-and-a-funeral.html
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnaol8QQruw


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