I presented a keynote at the Mapping Festival in Geneva, Thursday May 25th, 2019. The reading from a chapter of the same name, Unlocking Proprietorial Systems: For a More Expansive Artistic Practice, from my PhD. After my talk a few people asked whether the chapter was available to read online for download. Sadly, as part of my larger thesis it is still going through the process of being assessed by examiners at Birkbeck University. However, I thought it a good idea to the post the introduction which gives an outline and context of the larger text. You find the Stack/slides presented – here.
The paper asks about the role that arts-led critical engagement with technologies can play in unlocking the proprietorial systems that dominate our everyday social interactions both online and offline. It discusses and reaches beyond the accepted idea associated with proprietary software that certain uses of technology can and should be limited by the commercial interests of those that ‘own’ them. It explores how coercive social relations are enacted through proprietorial processes, embedded softwares, and technical infrastructures that involve their users in their own suppression. It explores how the spirit of hack values and the hacker ethic finds expression in the work of a series of artists in Furtherfield’s networks and programmes. Finally, it shows how with the advent of the latest wave of decentralised technologies we have brought the hacker ethos to Furtherfield’s current programmes of blockchain development and critique.
The meanings of the words proprietorial and proprietary are closely linked.
In the computing world, proprietary is often used to describe software that is not open source or freely licensed. Examples include operating systems, software programs, and file formats (‘Proprietary Software’).2 Many involved in the Free and Open-source Software (FOSS) movement believe that it is fundamentally wrong for commercial interests to own and control our use of software because of its innately social nature. Olga Goriunova argues that software cannot be treated like an object or device because it always has social relations embedded within it. She advocates breaking away from the ‘fetish’ of proprietary software structures, and ‘commodification of social processes layered into software production and operation’.3
The Cambridge Dictionary definition of proprietorial introduces an important new perspective: ‘like an owner: He put a proprietorial arm around her’. This brings us directly to a biopolitical distinction. The term biopolitics was first coined by Rudolf Kjellén, (who also coined the term geopolitics) (Markus 35) and then; later expanded upon by Michel Foucault, arguing that certain styles of government regulated their populations through Biopower. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri developed Foucault’s ideas, saying ‘Biopower is a form of power that regulates life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and re-articulating it’.4 But, as we will discover later in this chapter, the term also reinforces a deep psychological bias that asserts the right of the patriarch to own our social contexts. Neoliberalism now deploys both proprietary and proprietorial systems in the interest of an elite class that accrues more power and wealth while imposing increasing uncertainty on societies.
David Harvey argues that neoliberalism permeates every aspect of our lives, masked by a repeated rhetoric around ‘individual freedom, liberty, personal responsibility and the virtues of privatization, the free market and free trade’,5 thus legitimizing the continuation and extension of policies that consolidate capitalistic powers. The mechanics of neoliberalism take abstract capital as a pliable medium for use by the corporate elite while remaining hard to grasp for everyday people. The financial collapse in 2007/8 saw a tiny group of people overseeing matters that affected the lives of billions of people in the world – with disastrous effects. The scale of the collapse was tied to activities that entirely depended on global digital communication technologies and the operation of algorithmic processes. The complex and cumulative effects of these were poorly understood, even by those in the driving seat, and have had long-lasting consequences for the everyday lives of ordinary people and have catastrophically undermined the integrity of democratic processes.
In Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (2009), Amy E. Wendling reminds us that ‘Machine fetishism is a product of technological alienation’.6 The financial crash reflected the disastrous effects of machinic alienation. Now, however, after the crash of 2008, the austerity policies that sought to revive the ailing capitalist system are the proximate cause of the rise of the far right in Europe, the Tea Party in America, Brexit and of course the anarchic populism of the successful presidential campaign waged by Donald Trump.7
The nihilist guru, Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News (an alt-right publishing platform), and ex-chief strategist for Donald Trump’s Republican administration (Bannon left after seven months, in August 2017); he has been given carte blanche to talk on mainstream media as a promoter for the normalisation of far-right values,8 promoting his brand of nationalism, which was in part inspired by Mr Trump, to try and claim political power in capital cities from Pakistan and Japan to Australia, Brazil and Colombia.9
How do we build places, spaces, and identities that allow us to connect with our peers through artistic and cultural practices, individually as well as collectively – when our narratives are dominated by elite groups typically interested in isolating and crushing alternatives? How can experimental, critical thought and practices in arts and technology avoid perpetuating, or even counter, this state of entrapment and submission within a proprietorial absolute?
To unpack these questions we look at different types of proprietorial systems and consider their influence on creative forms of production across the fields of the traditional art world and media art culture. We look at how artists are dealing with these issues through their artistic agency: individually, collaboratively, and as part of groups and collectives. We explore the intentions behind the works: their production and their cultural and societal contexts, through which different sets of values and new possibilities are emerging, across the practice of art, academia, and technology, and thus, the world.
This presentation considers Furtherfield’s own ambitions to build fresh new engagements, based on our practised philosophies and radical knowledge production. It reflects on the ways in which influences – such as Situationism and post-Situationist thinking, punk and post-punk, grass-roots activism – are developing and informing our socially engaged arts activism.
Max Haven says, “Creativity is always social because creative people don’t survive except within a social environment. Beethoven was able to write hundreds of pieces of music because he didn’t have to do his own farming, or laundry, or manufacture his own clothing.”10
No art, concept, action, or vision exists in isolation; this goes the same for technology, history, and activism. Technology gives us access to tools that can change our as well as other people’s lives. But, learning skills and knowledge from both the analogue and technological worlds surely is the best way to move forward.
When new and powerful technologies are developed they tend to reflect the interests and values of those who develop them, whilst impacting many people’s everyday lives. To counter this tendency, Furtherfield has sought to cultivate a critically informed diversity in the conversations and practices surrounding the blockchain development space since 2015. Our intention has been to build networks of resistance to solutionist and technologically deterministic social platforms that seek to gamify and incentivise all social relations. This chapter has reflected on the history of hack value and has described a number of artistic projects and programmes that we have fostered, whilst encouraging a hacker ethos amongst arts participants and audiences. This work encourages people to think about how things are made, why things exist, and in whose interest things serve.
The creation of social and creative contexts on our own terms has always been under threat by those who would lock down on our territories, systems, places, spaces, histories, and consciousness, for their own, non-egalitarian interests. So, adding perspectives that unpack proprietary and proprietorial conditions, and considering their differences and their effects on everyday culture, and how these perspectives relate to artistic agency, felt necessary. In addition, this chapter investigated biopolitical tensions, where the existence of top-down dominance is very much about a proprietorial (sometimes invisible or spectre) arm of the patriarchy. In a sense, critiques relating to the patriarchy have been examined throughout each of the chapters. It is through understanding the proprietorial element that expands our awareness of the ways in which dominance is structurally imposed on all genders, classes, and races. Historically, this goes further back than neoliberalism’s forty-year reign, as discussed already in this chapter and other chapters, in reference to Murray Bookchin’s perspective. Now, we face proprietorial dominance and its biopolitical constraints through networks which have expanded beyond the analogue panopticon.
By jumping into the world of blockchain and bringing to it our already well-researched knowledges and critiques of art, technology, and societal experiences, and with over twenty years of skills developed around networks, platforms, infrastructures, and explorations in decentralization, with communities online and offline. We are well placed to become part of a scary and yet, fascinating, future.
The research I present already describes key plans and intentions on how to proceed into the future, we have been doing it for over twenty years. Furtherfield continues to, and will always advocate for open, playful and critical engagement with people and their technologies, encapsulated in the DIWO process.
And these are shaping our next 3 years of programming developing adventurous digital art and social justice, and hybrid experiences that radiate from these venues, transforming the urban park into a shared arts and research platform where people can explore how they want live in our globally-connected and troubled world, no matter their class. The next step is to learn from this research and build on it.
The last thing I wish to say is that the journey has been worth the struggle. I have made friends with so many radical people with brilliant minds, who are all examining life beyond the inanity of a conformity imposed by the powers that be.
I have realised that it’s really about radical friendships, and a life of a dynamic organisation with a plurality of voices empowered from the margins with community at its heart.
Main photo of me presenting was taken by founder of the brilliant Tatiana Bazzichelli founding artistic director & curator at The Disruption Network Lab, Berlin.
The image behind — My Friend Cayla Doll tear down by Benjamin J Borley, Paula Crutchlow & Gareth Foote with MoCC Guide Mikayla version 2.0 at Furtherfield Commons 2015 by Ian Cook, visitor at MoCC Free Market Furtherfield 2015 by Andrew Brand, MoCC Guide Mikayla version 3.0 in process with ethernet cable 2017 by Paula Crutchlow. http://www.moccguide.net/differently-smart-the-evolution-of-mocc-guide-mikayla/
1 Steiner, Hans-Christoph. Floss + Art. Compiled and Edited by Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk. GOTO10 in Association with OpenMute. 2008. p. 151.
2 ‘Proprietary Software’, Proprietary Software Definition, TechTerms. Web <https://techterms.com/definition/proprietary_software/>.
3 Goriunova, Olga. ‘Autocreativity: The Operation of Codes of Freedom in Art and Culture’, FLOSS + Art, edited by A. Mansoux and M. de. Valk. Poitiers, France: GOTO 10, in association with OpenMute, 2008. p. 92.
4 Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Biopolitical Production. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2003. p. 23-24.
5 Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism. Profile Books LTD. 2011. p. 11.
6 Wendling, Amy E. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation Hardcover. Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. p. 57.
7 Charnley, Kim. Art on the Brink. Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism. Sholette Gregory (author), Charnley, Kim (Editor). Pluto Press, 2017. p. 1&2.
8 The far right is at its strongest since the 1930s, and the media is helping. Guardian. Owen Jones. 3 Aug 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/03/far-right-bbc-lbc-itv-media [accessed 19 September 2018]
9 The Independent. The movement: How Steve Bannon is spreading populist Trump-style politics across Europe. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/steve-bannon-the-movement-europe-populist-nationalism-trump-a8557156.html/ accessed 27 Sept 2018.