Rick Prelinger at Economies of the Commons: The Audiovisual Commons and the Social Contract

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Anyone who has visited has probably seen his name: Rick Prelinger from the renowned Prelinger Archives. For the Economies of the Commons conference, Virtueel Platform invited Prelinger to give a presentation of his work. The Prelinger archives was founded in 1983 and in 2002, the collection of nearly 60.000 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

Rick Prelinger (CC Kennisland)

Rick Prelinger (CC Kennisland)

Before starting his presentation, Prelinger notes that many of the remarks in his presentation are ‘self-critical from an American standpoint.’ In Europe, some of the issues addressed have already been dealt with, or are currently being worked on. According to Prelinger ‘history has always been contesting territory and is not a warm and fuzzy place. Historical documents are kitschy and often loaded with meaning.’

Consequently, Prelinger has learned that ‘if you ask historical questions you should not request simple answers. And if you ask who controls history, don’t expect a simple answer either.’ You can start by asking questions such as ‘who were our ancestors?’ and ‘what were people doing at certain events?’ To preserve this, the role of the archiver is an important one: ‘A great deal of history belongs to individual collectors, and countless objects would not have existed if they had not been saved by archivers. The big question is: should traces of history live in private hands?’


Before going into this question, Prelinger first looks at the role of the archiver. There are different ways of collecting and archiving, but why are archives so important? According to Prelinger, ‘historical evidence is fragile’, ‘archives are vague and not based on reality’ and ‘people expect to be able to access archives when they need them (just like a garbage collector).’ In a classic approach towards the archive, they ‘no longer belong to larger organizations; for the large part they are not public institutions. They can make their own rules and they can choose to open their collections.’

Prelinger continues: ‘In some ways it might be revealing to think of archives as gate keepers; they can arbitrate, they can let certain histories pass, they can be institutes of denial as well as remembering. So, a quiet, dusty collection might be able to preserve a particular consciousness.’ Again, should the private gatekeeper be able to control history? Perhaps the recent discovery of a 16mm tape with questionable material of Marylin Monroe is an example of this. The archiver has decided not to publish it, to retain a certain public image of Monroe. However, according to Prelinger, ‘most secrets ultimately get out. Culture that is not secret, that is under copyright, will never escape the archive. There is an emerging promise of access to the past.’ But should the archiver release everything? Prelinger: ‘Sometimes we need to applaud guardianship.’

Digitization and archives
If we fast forward to our current (digital) situation, the role of the archive is undergoing change, and faces resistance. Firstly, Prelinger notes that ‘people aren’t given big money to collect online games now.’ But perhaps to greater challenge, from an American perspective, lies in the digitization of film: ‘Many archivists (in the States) are very disturbed by digitalizing films to broaden access. I speak as an archivist and we as a group are differential to copyright holders. We hear about crackdowns on pirates and think, are we next?’ Consequently, ‘most moving images remain very difficult to access and re-use. And because of the unavailability of archives, people have done many things to get their hands on things they need.’

According to Prelinger, ‘we have taken babysteps.’ But already YouTube functions as the default image of what a moving image archive should be. People get their hands on the things they need through the popular video website. As Prelinger notes: ‘We are having a hard time catching up. How do we make something with the ease of YouTube?’ He continues: ‘Until a few years ago, archival access was going downstream. But that production began to move from institution to individual. The current phenomenon is that people are doing archiving by themselves. People feel entitled to make archives, they find demands that are hard to realize.’ People also remix their personal archives, but people will continue to want the original document.


The goal of the Prelinger Archives remains to ‘collect, preserve, and facilitate access to films of historic significance that haven’t been collected elsewhere. Included are films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions. As a whole, the collection currently contains over 10% of the total production of ephemeral films between 1927 and 1987, and it may be the most complete and varied collection in existence of films from these poorly preserved genres.’

In the age of digitization, the Prelinger Archives was one of the first to use the Creative Commons license. Prelinger notes that this idea of the Creative Commons is still hard to comprehend: ‘How do you give away something and sell it at the same time?’ According to Prelinger, these is a two level system: Free and Fee. At the free level, you can download everything you want; complete films and more. But use is at your own risk and there is no detailed grant of rights. At the fee level, you can get physical materials and written license agreements with your name at the top.

The best archives make historical interventions
So, at the fee level, there is still no openness of physical materials. Prelinger: ‘We may want to immerse ourselves in digital objects, look at YouTube, or look at a book page, but that isn’t really openness yet.’ Continuing: ‘The kind of use that we are trying to encourage, is already happening. People already take things as being free. Our best archives make historical interventions. History as a means of intervening in the present. Archives are cultural producers too, most archives in the United States wait for people to intervene. Archives will live or die by the level that their archives are accessible.’

Still, it is important to regard our own time as being part of a flow. Prelinger: ‘The most disturbing question about “free” is: Is free culture just a fad? Remixing and sharing are deeply cultural practices, going back a thousand years. Will it devolve into a style which comes and goes? I hope we can build a commons that is more than a brand. Users are our allies and the people that can help us get funding. Engagement is up to us!’

Crossposted at Virtueel Platform
Some photography used from Kennisland (Creative Commons)


Written by newmw

April 16, 2008 at 11:12 am

Reporting from The Mobile City Conference: Locative Media as an essential part of the city

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The Dutch Architecture institute (NAi) hosted The Mobile City conference on 27-28th of February, 2008. The day provided both a theoretical and practical context to the multitude of topics applicable to the subject of the “mobile city”. Speakers such as Steve Graham, Tim Creswell, Christian Nold and Malcolm McCullough gave their insightful views on locative media applied to the city. The conference was organised by the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture programme of the University of Groningen (Martijn de Waal) and Playful Identities of the Erasmus Univeristy Rotterdam and the University of Utrecht (Michiel de Lange). All collected coverage is available on the Mobile City website. This post is a convergens of my posts on Virtueel Platform and Masters of Media. Picture below by Nicholas Nova.

The rise of mobile, locative media is clearly evident. The conference description couldn’t be more on the spot: ‘The physical, geographical city with its piazza’s, its neighborhoods and highway interchanges is overlaid with the ‘virtual space’ of electronic communication-, information- and observation-networks of GSM, GPS, CCTV, UMTS, WIFI, RFID, ETC. At the same time, the domain of digital space is increasingly becoming physical, an “internet of things”.’ And the questions posed are highly relevant to the city landscape, changing under the influence of locative media: What are useful concepts to talk about the merging of physical and digital spaces? What does it mean for urban culture, citizenship and identities? And what does it mean for the work of urban professionals (architects, designers, planners), media designers, and academics?

First off, where does it come from? As Malcolm McCullough explains: Architects always interacted with use of media. To exemplify this, he mentions an interesting example of Rome. Houses in ancient Rome were all over the place, as if you could simply put your house next to the people you wanted to speak to. In similar ways, neon signs, or in an earlier stage advertisement posters, change the cityscape. McCullough exemplifies this by showing a famous crossing with and without advertisement. It has become an essential part of the city.

Autopsy on Locative Media with Christian Nold
Christian Nold’s talk on Locative Media Autopsy at the 2008 The Mobile City conference dealt primarily with the question what Locative Media really is. Is it just a techno-fetishistic vision of gadget lovers, or should we perhaps take it more seriously to uncover its hidden uses?

Starting off, Nold talks about an interesting vision: ‘Locative Media is perhaps regarded as a strange other space, which goes beyond the top-down image of the Gods.’ Continuing: ‘I’m curious: Are we comfortable representing our cities like that?’ More specifically, what is represented in technofetishistic visualiations of locative media, and what kind of social relations are generated by this technofestishism?

According to Nold old maps sometimes provide much richer representations of what is going on, exemplary of this is a map Nold shows in which nymfs represent forests. So far, locative media has been predominantly about terms that do not encompass any social community building: gather, share, play, visualise and imagine. Perhaps it is useful to complement these terms with: collaborate, archive, educate, challenge, change behaviour and organise. Of which the latter is perhaps the most important one, with regards to for example smart mobs, Nold: ‘People are doing all sorts of stuff with mobile phones, how does this lead to social interaction?

Oakland Crime Map

Interesting examples of locative media enabling new forms of social relations are the Oakland Crime Spotting map, which reinterprets public data. “Normal” police crime is broken down in terms of different crimes, at different times. There are however, more complicated ways to go through data and make it publically available and usable. As an effect, cops were surprised to see data visualized in new ways, enabling new interpretations of the data. Nold: ‘If this project takes itself seriously and is an intended community project, it can start to go beyond the point of collecting new data. My question is: ‘How much crime is not being reported? Imagine if that could be represented. In order to do this, the extra step of working long-time within an area must be made.’

More examples include the Register your Fruit Tree” and “Fallen Fruit of Silver Lake” maps, which show ways to collect your fruit. Nold: ‘Through these maps you can start to think about social relationships that are caused by these project, and not just about the food. You might actually start talking to people who live in that house.’ Not a map, but very interesting in this aspect is the documentary “The power of community: how Cuba survived peak oil”. This documentary shows essential connections in the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost 50% of its oil imports. Because of Cuba’s agro-chemical background, many of the countries resources were rendered useless. The effects were that the average Cuban lost 30 pounds in body weight, but also the design of a community bus, which was a truck turned into a bus by adding a carrier.

Nold emphasizes that it is important to take locative media seriously, instead of being just a nice techno-fetishistic gadget. Nold: ‘Taking pictures with mobile phones is getting more serious.’ A next step in design could be designing for responsive communities and getting involved with people. An example of this from Nold’s work is his wellknown BioMapping project, but also his communal noise mapping project. For this project, Nold handed out decibel meters, which allowed the community to challenge “official” government numbers. The data so far was based on total noise levels and not on specific individual experience. Therefore the project also included adjective ratings such for sound such as: ‘silent, exetermely quiet, bassy, painful, exhausting, threatening, abrupt.’ In another project, the Silvertown affect map, the question is asked: How do you build maps that really get that local discussion going?’ Nold concludes: ‘For the BioMapping project, we turned the lie detector into something else. The context is not “are you lying”, but the physical environment. The context is very important, and for me that is where this new area of contextual media and responsive communities is going.’

Tim Creswell on Politics of Movement (… and Standing Still)
Tim Creswell talks from within a framework of ‘twenty years of thinking about place and mobility.’ His talk at the The Mobile City 2008 conference therefore is less about new technology, but more about political issues and the role power. For this, he outlines three ideas, being the “dromology”, the “social kinetics” and the “kinetic elite”.

The dromology, as discussed by Paul Virilio, is about the power to stop and put into motion, to incarcerate and accelerate objects and people. Social kinetics, mentioned by Norman Bryson, is a field which would chart the history of socially structured movement. The kinetic elite, by Peter Slotendijk, deals with a more or less insulated gorup of people who are able to move around the world at will. Creswell takes up these ideas to think about particularly the politics of moving, and, arguably even more important, the politics of standing still. (Image below by: bgiles1999)

Mobility is experienced differently by many groups. It can be comfortable or free, it can be done by man or woman, by domestic servan or refugee. Creswell takes the example of the Mexican immigrant that is trying to get into the United States. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the world that respects the rich man, the globetrotter, who uses first class cabins and pullman cars.

Consequently, there are certain aspects of mobility. Creswell: ‘It is not just homogenous, but something that has aspects to it to be defined for analytical purposes.’ He defines six aspects. Firstly there is the motive force: Why does a thing move? Creswell: ‘High up, people can choose destinations according to joys they offer, low down people are thrown out of places they would like to stay in.’ Secondly, there is velocity. How fast does a person or thing move? Paul Virilio in this aspect mentioned that the it is the prime engine for historical development. Creswell: The faster we get, the more our freedoms are threatened.Speed doesnt just mean fastness, but also slowness. slowness can be a privelege.’ Thirdly, there is rhythm. With what rhythm does a person or thing move? Rhythm in public space is discussed by Lefebvre. A vivid example of this is gate analysis, for example by individual finger print analysis. Another interesting example of the ministery of silly walks (a reference to the hilarious Monthy Python scene). The mapping of people’s walks, however has been incorporated with cctv, basically to find out who is walking in a funny way.

The fourth is the route, what route does a person or thing take? Creswell mentions Guattari in this aspect. Route is about the channeling of mobility. About producing order and predictability. Highways, highspeed train lines ignore cities in between and routes are turned into dromological space. Fifth: How does it feel? Creswell: ‘Mobility is experienced such as luxury and pampering, think of the economy and business class which gives you more; toilets, internet, movies, etc.’ In earlier ages, walking was for the poor, the criminal, the young and above all the ignorant. Creswell: ‘It was not untill the 19th century that people started to take walking as an end in itself, beyond the confines of the landscaped garden or gallery.’ The sixth aspect of mobility is friction: How does mobility stop? Is stopping a choice, or is it force? New forms are not about the city walls, but about higlhy valued speeds, global interconnections and CCTV. This is also about racial profiling: Blacks are more prone to be stopped by police. And in post 9-11 UK, a man was shot in the head who did not stop in an underground metro station. Creswell: ‘Friction, therefore, is an important component of mobility studies.’

In between all these aspects is the concept of the vagabond: A person with no established home who drifts from place to place without visible or lawful means or support. Creswell takes this back to the origins of the narrative of resistance: In 1599 a Spanish novellist created the picaresque novel which included stories of the vagabond who contradicts with established norms of the homes. A more recent example of the vagabond, Creswell recalls, is the song Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan. An example, also mentioned in Anthony Dunne’s book Hertzian Tales, is that of the homeless vehicle. Creswell: ‘This is an artistic way of bringing to life what would remain invisible. The heroic figure that lives outside of norms and conventions. It is something that challenges expectations within a society.’

Besides theoretical context, practical projects were also featured in between the keynotes. Presentations included some projects on the forefront of locative media, such as data visualisation, wireless connectivity and social uses for RFID. This is an overview of the projects presented.

Esther Polak – NomadicMILK
Well-known for her work on Amsterdam RealTime, Polak presented her work-in-progress project NomadicMILK, in which she follows Fulani cattle herdsmen and dairy truckers in Nigeria. Through a GPS enabled robot, trails are made visible to the local inhabitants. An important aspect of the project is reflecting on the trails with locals and let them see their daily routes in new ways.


James Stewart – Branded Meeting Places
Stewart works at the School of Art Culture and Environment, Edinburgh UK. He presented the “Branded Meeting Places” project, which deals with ‘ubiquitous technologies and the design of places for meaningful human encounter’. Naturally, ‘people are drawn to places that have particular meanings as loci of human encounter. Communications technologies are implicated in this move into the variegated brandscape.’ The Branded Meeting Places team gathers evidence for the assertions about the rise of branded meeting places.

Laurence Claeys & Marc Godon – Smarttouch
What influence does touch have in designing new technologies and moreover, what are the possibilities of touch as an interface? An interesting project and presentation, with a very relevant title: “Let the Homo Ludens conquer the city”.

Thomas Engel – NavBall
For those that attended Picnic ’07, and more specifically Waag Society’s “Come Out And Play” event, NavBall might sound familiar. A soccer-type game that uses GPS technology and mobile media and turns the city into a playground.

Jeroen van Schaik – Urbanism on Track
The Delft University of Technology presented its Urbanism on Track event, which was held January 7th 2007. While urban design and planning focuses strongly on actor-oriented and user-oriented design and planning approaches, technologies that give insight into the behavior of actors and users are rapidly evolving. Especially the use of tracking technologies – of which GPS (Global Positioning System) is best known – is booming in urban research. An important aspect of this is the relation between spatial and time issues. Tracking technologies can offer these possibilities to urban design. A book will be available in May 2008.

Martin Rieser – Mobile Audience
Martin Rieser of De Montfort University talks about the Mobile Audience. This project is about engaging people in new spaces, tales of the uncanny around the city and the “ghostly”; events that are happening simultaneously around the city. The Electric Pavillion website has an innovative database of city maps, poems and more created using mobile technologies.

Electric Pavillion.jpg

CityLive is, partly, about turning Hasselt en Leuven into a wireless city. Besides being an innovative project, an interesting challenge was mentioned: Incompatibility, which is essential in having users interact with the city on a large scale.

V2, Institute for Unstable Media, presented a project by Karen Lancel called the StalkShow. Stalkshow deals with threat of unsafety and isolation. It invites the audience to provide this threat with a personal face and space; to show both its horror and its beauty. A backpack with laptop/touchscreen is carried through public spaces. Being surrounded by the audience you are invited to touch the touchscreen and to navigate through an archive of texts about threat of unsafety and isolation.

Willem Velthoven – Social RFID
Willem Velthoven presented the interesting outcomes of RFID workshops at Picnic ’07. Most importantly, it shows that useful and interesting applications can be created by using rather simple technologies. Think of a tea-cup that Googles your name and displays it as you put in your RFID tag (iTea), or the ability to print a type of business cards which requires both people to meet up at an event (and get a free drink if you go to the bar with them).

mediamatics itea.jpg

Ronald Lenz – Waag Society (Mobile Learning Game Kit)
Lenz presented project of the Waag that incorporate locative media and eduction. Examples of these are Frequency 1550, a city game using locative media that lets school children explore Amsterdam in new ways. The Mobile Learning Game Kit enables teacher themselves to moderate sessions for their schools.

Written by newmw

March 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm

The Defeat of Time at Sonic Acts: Pitch Police says “Respect the Hertz!”

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The drone. An unmanned aircraft, flying over enemy territory by itself. Secretly photographing enemy targets. Session moderator Mike Harding vividly explains to the audience at De Balie, during Sonic Acts XII, the properties of the drone, which is, in the first place, this information based weapon system. The drone now has numerous references in modern culture, of which drone music is one.

Harding pours out a hard to find drone of the midshipman fish, courtesy of BBC, which finds its source in the animal kingdom. It is what Harding calls a ‘true drone from the animal kingdom’. It is a continuous sound that doesn’t change much, but Harding is ‘not content with that definition. A sound can change radically but still retain drone qualities. There are no temporal limits on a drone, how short can a drone be? A starting point for a drone could perhaps be, that it is longer than your natural breath.’But drones are not just that. The role of the drone can also be to ‘underpin, or underscore, a composition an an essential part of the orchestra’. A drone can also be a part of a musical instrument in itself, as is evident in Leif Elggren’s Royal Organ.

Von Hausswolff
Definitions of drone music are still fluid, a member of the audience for example pointed that throat singers can not be forgotten in the discourse. But what is drone music according to its musicians? Carl Michael von Hausswolff says: ‘It is silent and beautiful, it can make you stop skiing in the middle of a forest and in that moment you achieve a certain kind of rest. A state that you would like to be in for a long time. You lose a lot of the separation that can stand between yourself as human being and nature. There are no cars rushing by and its a personal dialogue. if you want to use it as a tool for practical living: It helps me understand the processes of life and being alive’.

Von Hausswollf also mentions a connection with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: ‘There is no start, no end. A kind of eternity. You become aware of a flood in your life. It is really stimulating and perhaps a positive way of trying to… well… live’. According to Von Hausswollf, this even applies to a live performance situation, where faders tend to remind you of time. Harding responds by asking if it is perhaps a kind of metastate. Von Hausswollf: ‘If you look at a concept such as transcendental meditation. Perhaps I could do it too, but I’m too western… And I’m too f*cked up to be able to list myself. I try to find other methods to achieve this kind of calm, or… whatever’.

Joachim Nordwall tends to touch upon the other side of the drone music spectrum. Nordwall: ‘How do you make drone? The drone is an illusion of safety for mankind, I like to recreate a certain feeling I had when growing up. The only fun thing of growing up for me was: cheap drugs and some place me and my friend could experiment with analogue synthesizers. There was this mix of drugs and analogue drones. In my work I have realized that I wanted to recreate that room where we grew up. Yesterday (during the Paradiso performance, ed.), I wanted to fill the room with the sound. A drone is convenient to fill up the room, and filling up the room creates a kind of safety. And moreover, that specific room where life was in front of me’.

During live shows, according to Nordwall, a ‘loud volume is important and the physical aspect of the drone is very interesting. To physically feel a change can be more interesting than the mental change. You get a feeling in the stomach. You can feel some parts of the body that sometimes do not exist’. Nordwall mentions Sunn as an example of a band that is enormously loud: ‘It has an effect that will get stuck in your bones for days after’.

In the discussion afterwards, volume levels at live performances sparked an interesting discussion. Is the artist responsible for exposing people to that kind of volume? Undoubtedly, there are physical consequences of sound. However, these consequences are largely unknown to the artist. The Pitch Police says: RESPECT THE HERTZ!

Crossposted at Masters of Media and Sonic Acts XII Blog
Photography by Roos Menkman –

Written by newmw

February 26, 2008 at 11:56 am