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Re: <nettime> a free letter to cultural institutions
Florian Cramer on Tue, 17 Jun 2014 14:24:34 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> a free letter to cultural institutions

Hello jaromil,

> First and foremost there is a confusion between the terms "art"
> and "culture", which is created already in Ozgur's open letter and
> oddly whipped up by Aymeric. Art production is quite different from
> cultural production.

This is mined territory as there are no whatsoever consensus
definitions of either term. "Culture" has a much broader meaning in
the humanities and cultural studies, but is (as cultural studies
scholar Raymond Williams already wrote in the 1970s) colloquially used
as a synonym for "the arts".

Within Western institutional bureaucracies, these terms work as class
distinctions: "culture" is the most broad and least selective term,
encompassing everything from carnival in the streets to a white cube art
biennial, "the arts" is more specific to music, literature, film, theater,
performance, visual art and tends to exclude forms of popular culture
outside those terms (such as the street carnival), "art" in the singular
form is often used as a synonym of highbrow visual art.

> Lets focus for instance on art *production* (as in the complex
> relationships on which the condition for production of art stands).

I would even agree that for highbrow (fine) art institutions financed
by public money, a "free culture" provision as proposed in the
manifesto would be a good challenge and political reality check. It
would infinitely more honest as critical politics than the several
decades of superficially critical discourse in a journal like
"October" which have questioned everything but the institutions of art

The issue, however, is that the manifesto is not directed to highbrow
art institutions, but much more generally at cultural institutions
of any kind. And it would be the places that are most sympathetic to
free culture (like WORM in Rotterdam, among many others) where such
a policy could in the end do more harm than good, because of all the
reasons mentioned.

> To me "free art" just represents the refusal of it as a whole,
> rather than an educated proposal for a new system. In this regards
> "free art" is really a punk attitude (fluxus?) and I'm entertained
> to read you choosing the weakest metaphore for your arguments to
> fly. I guess it was intended.

No, I was choosing the strongest metaphor because I'm much more
interested in defending punk or Fluxus than a highbrow fine artist
like, say, Liam Gillick. For me, the utility of a device like copyleft
is measured by the cultural practices it will either foster or
obstruct, not the other way around.

> Not only they cannot impose anything on artists even if they want,
> but they are predated by profit-making lobbies for the increasingly
> degraded labour they can offer. In such a scenario an artist
> within the 99% (which includes most students anyway) is better off
> circulating her/his works on PirateBay and on street walls: it
> will give way more chances to enter the miracle of reward for art
> production. All this because, as they function today, institutions
> are there only for the established 1% and as much as they try to
> open up new offers for their audience and respect the subjectivity
> of new artists, they will just create more demand for the 1% and
> de-subjectivate new artists into their own institutional decadence.

The problem is that you are constructing an abstract example to prove
a moral high ground, but reality is different. If you look for example
at the free software projects that are being developed within the
Libre Graphics network, then you see that a lot of them depend on
public cultural funding, and that these funding has often raised by
sympathizing cultural institutions (like Constant in Brussels, for

Another problem with free software development is namely economical
and financial. In the 1970s to the early 1990s, it took place
almost exclusively at public universities: University of California
at Berkeley for BSD, the MIT for GNU, the University of Helsinki
for the beginnings of Linux, etc. Since the 1990s, along with the
spirit of neoliberalization (that also forced public universities
to commercialize and proprietarize its research), most free
software development has taken place in the dotcom and IT industry:
companies like IBM, Google and Red Hat. If one looks at free
software development economics, then it either works as a charity,
programmed in the free time of people who have other IT jobs, or as
part of development of base software stacks (kernels, database and
network servers) that run other, typically proprietary applications
(such as the Google search engine, "cloud" storage, Intranets and
enterprise applications etc.). Dmitry covered this in a paper as (I'm
paraphrasing) niches in the industry where infrastructural technology
is being developed that is shared across competitors and thus exempt
from direct commercialization.

These two factors, "charity" and "infrastructural IT" development,
point to the issues that free software development faces if it
operates outside those economic comfort zones. For one, the "charity"
model is likely to end soon, if it isn't already in the process of
collapsing. It is mostly a product of a time where working as a
software developer or systems administrator in Western countries meant
middle class stability. (If I look at my generation of people born in
the 1960s to 70s, then most of those who are middle class work in such
IT jobs whereas their parents typically worked as teachers, office
workers, architects - all of which have become highly precarious and
underpaid jobs today.) It is foreseeable that this stability will be
squashed. Software developer and systems administrator are about to
become highly precarious jobs because they can be outsourced into
cheap labor countries, entirely obsoleted by automation (as in the
case of the NSA which, after Snowden, wants to replace all its systems
administrators with software) and generally suffer a race to bottom
wages because colleges in almost any country now churn out thousands
of such workers every year. The same is true for media designers, btw.
- and Wendy Chun sketched a similar pessimistic future scenario for
'digital humanities' graduates. As soon as these IT workers will be
in the same precarious situation that arts and humanities graduates
traditionally have been in, they will no longer have the luxury of
well-enough-paid part-time work leaving enough time for engaging in
free software development communities.

That will leave corporately developed free software as a by-product
of search engines, cloud storage or mobile operating systems. On the
positive side, it does produce (metaphorically speaking) "industrial
waste" that is interesting for activist and other communities: such
as the Linux kernel, the Apache server, MySQL etc. But that means
that the agenda for thoroughly and professionally developed free
software is being set by the IT industry. And this is the very reason
why, for example, Linux and Apache have made giant steps in their
development since the early 1990s whereas a program like The Gimp,
in which no corporate entity is truly interested in, still doesn't
support more than 8 bit color channels, or why there is still no
rock-solid, professional grade free software video editor. Those
development communities exist, but they are small, and don't have
the same backing as those free software projects with vested (and
invested) industrial interests. And one of the few places where they
received outside support have been 'cultural' initiatives like the
Libre Graphics network instigated by 'cultural' institutions.

> In most cases the institutional badge on certain (top 1-5%) art
> productions is bought by institutions with public (or lottery) money
> for the preservation of their own glory and is accepted by artists
> mainly because of the money, secondarily because of the popularity
> of avenues and curators.

That is even an optimistic view. Most top art institutions don't pay
the artists they're exposing at all:


I heard that for Dutch artist/prankster Dick Verdult the year 2011, in
which he had a solo retrospective at Van Abbe Museum Eindhoven, was
his economically most precarious period ever because he put a lot of
work into the show while the museum didn't pay him a cent.

> Lets now focus on "free culture". The best definition of it I
> believe is given by the charter of the FCForum http://fcforum.net.

The problem I see that the keywords FCForum uses - "innovation" and
"creativity" - are tainted beyond repair. Sadly, that also includes
the word "free" and "freedom" and their use in contemporary political
discourse. (It doesn't help that the person who co-developed the term
"Open Source" comes from the same camp, running his blog under the
title "Armed and Dangerous - Sex, software, politics, and firearms.
Life's simple pleasures???")

> The notion of free culture is the bazaar.

It's the notion coined by the aforementioned "Armed and Dangerous"
person, and it's the most literal free market term you can think of.

> I'm at least certain that on the mid-long term that is not the way
> cultural industries go, it is not the hipsteria of blinking leds
> on arduinos, the infantile discovery of electricity and fiddling
> on circuits, the mirage of a fluxus in the electronic age and a
> bazaar out of the cathedral. We need a deeper operation that goes
> beyond the conceptualization of "free art" (and free culture and
> even free software) to connect different contexts and the dynamics
> of creation, sharing, appropriation and distribution of analogue and
> digital productions.

I couldn't agree more!

> Therefore in Ozgur's open letter I believe it makes more sense to
> talk about "free media", as the Sub-Comandante Insurgente Mois??s
> does https://diasp.org/p/3154068

That could indeed help clarify the debate.


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