RMC (M.N.): Once we face this fact, then the question of the 'relevance' of the Documenta to the person in New Delhi, or the relevance of the discussion in New Delhi for this Documenta has to be fundamentally re-thought. I think a relevance exists, both ways, because the predicaments that the Documenta is trying to address are very much present in New Delhi, which is a city as entangled as any other in the global economic, political or cultural matrix. There may be artists in New Delhi who are not prepared to encounter this fact, but I am sure that there are insular artists in Berlin, who don't want to recognize the world that they live in today. In that case, this Documenta would be just as irrelevant for either party.
In any case, the question of the relevance or worth only comes up, curiously, when the movement (between spaces) is that of cultural workers, or cultural objects. One could ask, why is it quite acceptable for software engineers, scientists, academics, bankers and economists to circulate back and forth between, say New Delhi and Frankfurt, or New Delhi and Los Angeles, without having their credibility or their bona fides questioned in either location. But, somehow, when it comes to artists, or cultural workers, we must always interrogate the notions of authenticity, relevance and the intrinsic worth of the movement in space of meanings and meaning makers. It is as if artists, art practitioners and boat people or refugees and asylum seekers are the only kinds of people who must prove the 'real' worth of their movement (for themselves and for everyone else), once they arrive at any place not ordinarily considered to be their own 'home ground'...
RMC (S.S): In any case (laughing), when we go back we will no longer be artists, as we are not considered to be 'artists' in India. But as people who happen to live in one of the most interesting cities in the world, we think that this Documenta does address the world that we live in, and that we have been able to dialogue with our city, in our work in this Documenta.
C.S.: So you did not become an artist now, by mistake?[laughs]
RMC(S.S.): I think we have to use the term art and artist very responsibly, like to be responsible for the idea of our practice, which is different from saying "I am an artist". Of course, one of the arenas in which our products circulate is that of art. But when tomorrow someone calls me a writer, a person in literature, I will wonder if they are talking to the person next to me, but I do understand that I will also have to be responsible to this arena. Because for the kind of practice we do, it would be foolish to say that we do not want to enter this domain. Of course we want to enter, because we want to intervene in it, say something, create a space which is meaningful. In that sense we are artists. But many people who are part of the art world in India may consider us as interesting outsiders, but may or may not wish to consider us as insiders. I think it is entirely up to other people what they wish to call us. The only thing we can do is being responsible to the kind of practice we are doing. Coming from a film making background, this question actually never ceases to surprise us, if you make a film, what is talked about is the film, not whether or not you are the kind of person who can be considered to be a filmmaker. People from all kinds of background enter filmmaking, and that is seen as quite natural, no one has any anxiety about this fact.
C.S.: I agree, but what is different for me is, that I am coming from an art background. And although I am working hard to open the field of art to various, also political practices, I have always found it important to consciously protect the territory of art, and make sure that it will go on to exist.
RMC(M.N. & S.S.): We agree that the autonomy and freedom of artistic work is something to insist on, especially at a time when there are a lot of institutional and corporate pressures and enticements to create one kind of work or another. And also when artists may find it increasingly difficult to use certain materials or approach certain subjects for fears of violating the increasingly powerful apparatus of intellectual property.
In this sense, the best safeguard for the autonomy of the arts lies in art practices locating themselves (and by extension arguing for all culture to be placed) solidly in the public domain.
We think however, that it is equally important to recognize that artmaking is a social practice, that it does not happen outside of the social - outside of interpersonal, ethical, gender and class inflected realities, and that it has always a relationship to communities of practitioners and audiences that form around the making, viewing, interpretation and circulation of an art object). We cannot abstract art as a purely 'formal' activity, outside of this matrix of lived experience and realities. And just as we now rightly subject science and technology to all kinds of questions and ethical scrutinies, so too we cannot insist on a different set of standards for anyone who takes upon themselves the role of the artist, or has it thrust upon them.
This is not to compromise the autonomy of the arts, but to see that autonomy as grounded in the matrix of our social being. It means, for instance, that there is a difference that we would like to insist on between making art that articulates, or gives voice to a politics, on the one hand, and making art politically on the other.
In a climate where there might be an insistence on some kind of 'Socialist Realist' aesthetic, the choice on the part of an artist to work only and rigorously with non-figurative abstraction is not a purely formal one, it carries with it a definite political sensibility. Similarly, to work with narrative in a climate that invests heavily in say 'abstract expressionism'(as CIA fronted cultural organizations did in the days of the cold war) is again not simply an aesthetic decision.
So, if someone is working within New Media practice, the question of which kind of software one uses, whether or not it is proprietary, and about the protocols that the artist inscribes into his/her work to govern the circulation of his/her work - all of these are questions that have formal implications, and they say a lot about the way the artist sees himself/herself and his/her work in relation to society, to communities, and to different fields of power. To say in the instance of new media, at least, that one's work is innocent and untouched by anything other than ones own pristine individual creativity is to suffer an illusion.
C.S.: Let's then have a look at your internet project "OPUS". (5)
RMC(M.N.): The idea for the project is taken from the Free Software principle. In Free Software anyone can download something, modify, customize it, whatever you want, and again distribute and share it. And we were wondering if it will work as a methodology also for cultural production. The project is an experiment to find out. And the other aspect is the idea of the commons, which is a traditional idea. Everyone is familiar with it. The digital commons has been talked about a lot. And it is what the whole of the internet is about, to collectively put in and to take out. But we are afraid that under a certain pressure the system will be more controlled. That's why we decided to create a space where people could voluntarily put their work, keep authorship for their work, so that whatever you put there, photo, sound, text, you always have a sense of who created the work. The names of the authors will always be there. And then you open the source, the material for use.
C.S.: As I can read on the website OPUS stands for "Open Platform for Unlimited Signification", and in Latin, the word 'Opus' also means a work or a creation. In the case of OPUS - the creation would be the platform you have built?
RMC (S.S.): OPUS is both the software or the application as the 'work' that we have created, as well as the space where others can create their own "Opuses". It is a work for the making of work.
C.S.: Is it also possible for users of "Opus" to influence the platform itself, or are they just allowed to upload and download material?
RMC (M.N.): Well the code for the application itself is also freely available, and people can modify and improve it, and take it to create their own rescension of the platform, of OPUS itself.
C.S.: You try to transfer the principle of open source and free software to cultural products. In the field of software the idea is to make the code behind the user interface visible, useable, changeable. What would correspond to the level of code in software in the field of cultural production?
RMC (M.N.): I think the correspondence has to be seen at the level of a translation, and that too a translation into practice. The point is not to find some kind of platonic correspondence of ideas, but to see what forms of practice best apply to the project of an open creativity.
Having said that, the question of "what corresponds to code in culture" might be best understood by an analogy with language. Those who share a language in common share an alphabet, a vocabulary and a set of grammatical principles. The language grows by sharing vocabularies with other languages it comes into contact with. It also grows because more people either invent words or find new usage for existing ones. It also grows with each new text, which enriches the expressive possibilities of the language. Here the finitude of the alphabet, which is shared, is in no way a barrier on the infinite growth possibility of the language itself. The process of combining alphabets to form words, of combining words to form texts, allows for infinite play.
We want to see the field of cultural production played out along similar lines. The images, sounds, objects and texts that comprise this field can be seen as an alphabet with which we and others can then fashion a growing number of interlinked expressions. Of course these objects were created, but then so was the alphabet, and that arbitrary list of sounds and marks that we have grown accustomed to calling words. No one thinks twice about using say the word 'zany' which is said to have been coined by Shakespeare, in different contexts, and to stand for a variety of meanings. Why should this freedom, which we accept in one part of cultural production, not be something that we can accept in other areas?
This freedom was actually taken for granted in oral culture, and we know for instance that stories, imagery units, and narrative fragments cross fertilized constantly across large bodies of what is called epic material, in an almost hypertextual way. In South Asia, you grow up knowing the stories of the 'Mahabharata' - an epic poem, and you accept that stories and characters, the code if you like, travel between different rescensions, quite easily and without a problem.
C.S.: In the field of sofware, the big ideal behind open source and free software is an emancipatory approach to technology, independence from industrial monopolies and economic independence. What is the ideal behind "free cultural products". What elementary changes to you expect?
RMC (M.N & S.S): Well, an independence from industrial and institutional monopolies in culture would be a good place to start thinking about the ideal behind 'free culture'. If you look at the way the activity of filmmaking is heavily dependent on big studios, or state subsidies today, it means that the possibility of an 'independent' film practice (notwithstanding the possibilities opened up by digital technology) are fraught with difficulties. A culture that gave due importance to the ways in which creative activity can be shared, or made open, would in the long run be more beneficial for independent creativity.
Further, the act of creating culture involves many inheritances, many kinds of participation even in the process of the creation of a single artwork. The discipline of art history would be without work if we could not trace the ways in which works enter and inhabit each other, leave traces on one another, over time. If this be the case, it becomes difficult to sustain the notion of the bounded 'individual' creator of an art work. We don't have the cultural vocabulary to fully account for this form of 'unbounded' authorship, and we think that one of the ideas behind working through the idea of 'free cultural products' is to actually build a conceptual framework for the concrete, existing reality of such authorship.
Finally, we think that the production of signs, on which so much rests at present, ought to be a field far more open for contestation and interpretation than it is now. If, for instance, you are constantly confronted by the sign for this or that commodity, it could be said that you are creating some kind of 'value' that adds to the sign with every instance of attention that you give to that sign. Once you admit to that, then if you are the kind of person who believes that people should have some degree of control over what happens to their own labour power, you will see how important it is that the whole area of signification, the making and remaking of signs be more open, and more contested.
You could say that at a broad level, these could be some of the ideas behind 'free cultural products' as we see them. Of course, others may see the process quite differently.
As for what elementary changes we expect, we are certain that in the days to come the whole domain of intellectual property, disputes around what is or is not in the public domain, will play a very important role in the shaping of culture. It has already begun at the level of popular culture - all the battles about copyright, peer to peer distribution of music are pointers in the direction that art is bound to have to reckon with in the near future. We feel that there may be attempts for a certain convergence of position between the industrial and the institutional structures that govern the production of signs, weighed in the favour of a stricter intellectual property regime. All those involved in art practice will have to negotiate and fight for greater autonomy and one of the ways they can do this is by creating the frameworks of a visual and a meaning making culture based on principles other than those of ownership and originality. This is actually not a question of some whimsical apology for free software, but of defending the very autonomy of art practice that you had referred to in an earlier question.
C.S.: For the software of the OPUS platform you use the gpl (General Public Licence), whereas you create a new licence for the cultural products being exchanged on the platform. What in your licence is specific and different from the software licence?
RMC(M.N.): You are right, we created our own licence, the 'Opus Licence', together with a lawyer, Lawrence Liang. He is based in Bangalore, and he is currently researching the cultural implications of intellectual property on a fellowship with Sarai.
Well the crucial reason why we felt that we needed a new licence was to protect works within the OPUS domain, as well as OPUS itself, from 'third party liability' cases, and to protect OPUS from the possibility of works within it infringing the various laws (in different countries) that make a host, even an ISP, liable for the content of any thing that they carry.
CS : Do you think it would make sense and it is possible to work on a general copyleft licence for cultural products, in order to make it more attractive for users to work with it? The confusing legal situation seems to deter a lot of people at the moment.
RMC( S.S.): The whole field of 'free cultural material' is at present at a very young, experimental stage. A lot of things will have to be tried out, a lot of situations encountered, and a lot of legal as well as artistic creativity will have to be exercised to create a greater common space before we can come to any general conclusions about what is or is not desirable. In fact, there may be a strong argument in favour of retaining a diversity of licenses, both to allow for greater choice, and also to account for the many different kinds of legal and practice based paradigms of thinking about authorship.
This is not to say that we should not evolve a simpler understanding of what 'Copyleft', for instance, might entail. In general terms, yes, we could say that it implies a certain underlying commitment to the idea of the Public Domain. But then the 'Public' that constitutes the Public Domain may be inflected quite differently in different instances, and a diversity of licenses would help respond to these specificities.
CS: Is there any material up already? Can we have a look at something?
RMC(M.N.): It has just started to fill up. The first thing we have put there is some of the material for the video we have here, basically images and texts from what you see in the "Co- Ordinates" installation.
C.S.: How did you build the platform?
RMC(M.N.): Using MyQSL and php.
C.S.: Do you know sourceforge.net, the exchange platform for open anf free software? Was it probably an inspiration for OPUS?
RMC(M.N.): The programmers that we worked with on OPUS, Pankaj and Silvan, were both familiar with sourceforge.net, and there are strong similarities, particularly in the way in which both systems use CVS. But the concept which really animates OPUS is that of the rescension.
A rescension is either a re-arrangement of an existing text, or a re-working of an existing text, incorporating new materials, and/or deleting some old ones, or a new edition with a substantive commentary or annotation. A recension is neither a clone, nor an authorised or pirated copy nor an improved or deteriorated version, of a pre-existing text. Just as as a child is neither a clone, nor an authorised or pirated copy, nor an improved or deteriorated version of its parents. We have been working with this idea, and trying to see what it implies for a different ethic of cultural production for quite some time, and you can see the seeds of it in a text we wrote called the Concise Lexicon of/for the Digital Commons.
So in a sense, it is this working with the idea of the rescension that could be said to be the 'inspiration' behind OPUS.
C.S.: But let us go back to seeing what is inside OPUS at the moment, here for instance is a whole set of media objects that carry the key word 'barricade'. What does that mean?
RMC(M.N.): Right now, the barricade is an important element inside OPUS, because it contains a lot of material from the "Co-Ordinates" installation. The barricade is a metal barrier, that the police put up to control movement and identification on the streets of Delhi. Since, the work (the installation) is about the way in which space is inflected by legality, the barricade becomes quite an important element in the work.
So here we have an icon for a media object, and the object here is an image of a barricade. When you click on it you get a short description and information about the author and how many people have already downloaded that object. And you have all the 5 keywords, written by the one who uploaded the image, that best describe it.
And if any other object shares a keyword, lets say another instance of the word 'barricade', then the software creates a visual link between the icons for these two objects. This helps you locate an object and its' affinities within the OPUS system.
C.S: How do you communicate OPUS? How do people learn about it?
RMC(M.N.): The plan is to announce it on various lists, and also run workshops, especially with students.
C.S.: You call OPUS an experiment. What would be the ideal outcome or process to happen for you, and in what case would you classify the project as failure?
RMC(M.N.): The ideal outcome or process would be if OPUS were to be used and used intensively by a lot of people as a space to create and show work together with others, if it could lead to a lot of OPUS cousins - other platforms for free and open creativity, and if it sparked a lively discussion and debate about a new aesthetic and ethic of what it means to have an open, unbounded authorship.
If the work remained at a purely conceptual level, as a good idea that might have had a life, if only people tried it, then obviously we will have failed somewhere in communicating the 'usability' of what many would otherwise agree was a good idea. It is a fragile, living entity, and it will need a lot of people working within it, tending it, helping it grow, in a sociable manner if it is to succeed. Otherwise, like any living being that doesn't get nourishment and care it will die! We think that this predicament is interesting in and of itself. That a piece of work, which some might call art, is entirely dependent on what people do with it, and within it. Any passive reception of OPUS is a guarantee of its failure.
[Addendum, September 4, 2002]
C.S.: Documenta11 is almost over now, and I would like to know how the European art audience has responded to your project. Could you provide any numbers regarding participation, cooperators, uploaded material, etc.?
RMC(M.N.): It is not easy at the moment to make an assessment of the kind of currency that OPUS has got in Europe as a result of Documenta11. Certainly, a lot of people have seen it, and we have had several inquiries about it.
We went back to Documenta in the middle of July for a two day long discussion event around some of the ideas of unbounded authorship. That proved to be quite a lively set of conversations. We had invited Lawrence Liang, the legal researcher who worked on the OPUS license, Nancy Adajania, an art critic and curator from Bombay, Ravi Sundaram, our colleague at Sarai, and Geert Lovink, new media critic, to debate the implications of the culture of the copy, languages of withholding and the digital commons. We were joined on the panel by Okwui Enwezor and Sarat Maharaj, one of the co-curators for Documenta11. The discussions evoked a lot of response, there was even a person from an artists copyright agency who had interesting differences with the approach that we were putting forward. I think the level of interest was also quite high partly because in some senses the public of the art world are just beginning to come to terms in a fundamental sense with the cultural and intellectual minefield that lies around the issues of intellectual property, (something that people in new media and digital culture have to deal with all the time), and so a work, and a discussion that focuses attention on this minefield is bound to generate a lot of interest.
Apart form this, there are at least two instances that we know of people who have said that they want to use the code of OPUS to begin working on their own platforms. One from a group of young programmers in London, and another, of a group that intends to work on a collaborative video project in Germany. We also see people putting up things on the site, so we know that a group of free software enthusiasts in Kassel actually put up some material. Andreas Broeckman at the Transmediale has started a theme. Lev Manovich has written about it in Nettime, as well as elsewhere and intends to start using it to teach to his students. (6) and (7).
Also, there is a group in Recife, Brazil who we discovered were doing "free and shared creation of music" in a project called Re: Combo (8), and they want to work with OPUS as well.
Of course there are still some bugs and teething problems in OPUS, so we are working on smoothening those out, and hopefully, as time goes by, we will see OPUS really come alive.
C.S.: Thank you for the conversation.
Due to Okwui Enwezor, director of Documenta11, the exhibition space should become a space for cultural production, a space for a dialogue between cultures, an interface between the field of cultural production and the public, and a space where global emancipation is practized instead of cultivating a western oriented, modernist understanding of art as autonomous field. Along with that goes his wish to go beyond marketdriven standards for his show. Raqs Media Collective, working as a collective, being based in a so-called developing country, see their cultural production as contribution to civil society, where it might function as a trigger for social and political developments, and therefore seem to perfectly illustrate Enwezor's concept.(9)
2) "Socially mapping the city of Kassel, the Bataille Monument integrates itself actively in the lives of a marginalized local community. Hosted by an evanescent walk-in container, a heterogenous textual and visual archive on Bataille is diligently constructed with the help of young philosophers and accompagnied by Hirschhorn's own video documentation with contemporaries...", Documenta11, short guide
3) Delhi, 2002
4) Hanno Rauterberg, DIE ZEIT 24/2002, translated by C.S.
6) Lev Manovich, Welcome to the Multiplex
7) Lev Manovich, Who is the Author? Sampling / Remixing / Open Source
9) die tageszeitung, Interview between Harald Fricke and Okwui Enwezor, June 1, 2002
Published on nettime-list, September 10, 2002