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

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Anyone who has visited archive.org 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 Historical documents are kitschy and often loaded with meaning.’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)
www.flickr.com/photos/kl/

Written by newmw

April 16, 2008 at 11:12 am

Participatory Culture at Video Vortex: Cutthroat Capitalism, Foodmarket Piracy and Asian Perspectives

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Do you think Participatory Culture is all about friendly cooperation? Fans flocking to Star Wars conventions or squad based play in the latest MMORPG? The Participatory Culture session at the international Video Vortex conference in Amsterdam, proved that practices such as “cutthroat capitalism” also belong in this category. And how can, from an Asian instead of a Eurocentric perspective, the changing concept of authorship be understood when everyone can build new meaning upon an original work? This session provided practical examples as well as theoretical context. The Masters of Media of the University of Amsterdam were once again present to cover the whole event. Full reports, including this one are available from the Masters of Media blog.

Tilman Baumgärtel: Cutthroat Capitalism in South East Asia
First presenter Tilman Baumgärtel, currently teaching at the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines in Manila, discussed piracy and intellectual property in South East Asia. Having organised the Asian Edition conference, which deals exactly with this subject, Baumgärtel can be regarded as an expert on these ‘social economics of piracy’. Surprisingly, however, these questions do not involve Internet and P2P data communication. Baumgärtel explains: ‘Asian piracy is still largely based on disk because there aren’t a lot of fast internet connections and modems’.

Tilman Baumgartel Anne Helmond

To give the audience an impression of the context, Baumgärtel shows a trailer of Malaysian film Ciplak (translation: Fraud). This independent film deals with the subject of piracy and it is one of the few comedies that is accessable to audiences in the region, also because indie films usually deal with ‘more serious subjects’. In the production process of Ciplak, creativity was necessary because of the low budget. For example, everyone worked on the movie free of charge, a camera was bought that came with 10 free mini-DV tapes and IKEA lamps were used for lighting.

Malaysian piracy started in the 1980s with the advent of VHS pirating and continued in the 1990s with VCD pirating. Baumgärtel: ‘Piracy started as a counter-movement against poor distribution. In Europe you can find almost anything, in Asian countries, however, films are hard to find.’ Only Hollywood films, or films starring Jackie Chan, make it through to cinemas and the legal distribution circuit. Baumgärtel: ‘This changed with VHS and BetaMax piracy. Some of the film makers feel that they are so indepted to the pirates, that this group is already thinking about contacting pirates so they can use their distribution channels. Internet is not a factor in this yet because of low speeds’.

These distribution channels are inventive and constitute a grassroots movement. In order to provide consumers with product, fishermen are smuggling masterdisks in the belly of tunafish. Global piracy is a consequential response to global economy, Baumgärtel: ‘The recent process of privatization has taken its part in facilitating piracy’. And continuining: ‘This is globalization from below. It is not about legal organisations, but illegal outfits. This movement represents globalized business and takes advantage of infrastructures. It is the counter image of legal illicit globalization we are seeing right now’. A term Baumgärtel mentioned in response to questions afterwards, perhaps exemplifies this movement most vividly. This is about ‘Cutthroat Capitalism’.

Ana Peraica: Food markets and copyright infringement
In her presentation, Ana Peraica, freelance curator and theorist mostly engaged with video and new media, gives an analysis of the growin archive of illegal material with a focus on Croatia. Why this region? Peraica: ‘Croatia is a really interesting region, because piracy is not really regarded as a crime’. She continues: ‘The problem of copyright was introduced to Croatia in 1991, before that it was still silent online. Today you can find illegal copies, for example, on the food market’.

On a more personal note I came across this example on a recent trip to Split, Croatia. Boulevards were crowded with stands selling illegal copies of the newest computer games and Hollywood films. Once installed, games were often older versions of the same franchise and films turned out to be bad recordings of cinema screens. Peraica: ‘I would like to show some examples in my presentation today, but the problem is that this would be illegal here. There is no agency that hunts down piracy in Croatia, they simply don’t bother about objections of copyright’.

Ana Peraica CrCom Anne Helmond

Continuing, Peraica asks herself the question: ‘Is everyone who possesses a video camera and publically exposes video, automatically a video artist?’ Both an interesting and strange case, exemplifying duality in this question, is that of Croatian popstar Severina. She recorded a pornographic video of herself that got published online without her consent, she claimed copyright and stated that is was video art. Severina’s lawyer also stated that home video pornography is video art. The court’s response was that it was nothing innovative and therefore not video art. Severina lost this case, but at the same time she saw her popularity rising. The lawyer also put forth that it was invading privacy, the court responded by stating that she recorded it herself.

‘What is still video art?’ Peraica continues. Does it have to be innovative and perhaps even elitist? Peraica: ‘Popular culture is recycling elite culture, but is it still art?’ In her final words, Peraica concludes that is hard, if not impossible, to define art as something downloaded from YouTube versus institutionalized art.

Dominick Chen: Redefining Authorship from an Asian perspective
In his presentation Dominick Chen, who leads Creative Commons Japan and is JSPS Fellow Researcher at the University of Tokyo and NTT InterCommunication Center, aims to propose a redefinition of authorship itself: ‘How can we gain understanding of data generation and distribution in the light of systems?’ And more specifically, how to go through this Eurocentric idea of individual authorship, or commons? Chen aims to redefine the ‘commons’ from an Asian point of view. Especially with regards to the chain of creativity, where Asian culture differs greatly from its European counterpart.

Chen starts with an example of piracy and participatory culture in India: ‘When you buy a DVD in India, through a Chinese hack, you can get three stories: English, Chinese and Indian. Because translation of subtitles is really bad, you get three different stories based on one film’. Another example of a big Japanese market where you can secondary work of comics, anime and novels, Chen: ‘ There are about 50.000 participants who are selling product themselves, they gather to buy eachothers works that have been derived from original works.

Dominck Chen CrCom Anne Helmond

The result is ‘fifty million Yen of economical effect in just three days’. Contributing to an original artwork, going from monologue to dialogue, is an essential part of Japanese culture. Chen: ‘Creativity is considered as reflective to the original author, contributors don’t care about being part of the chain of creativity’. This is exemplified in the fact that on Japanese Wikipedia, 80% of users are acting anonymous. This is the exact opposite of Wikipedia use in the United States. Chen: ‘This chain of creativity, based on anonymity mous is very characteristic of Japanese culture.

Looking back, Chen remembers 2007 firstly as the year of the fight between users and existing shareholders of the broadcasting industry. Secondly, 2007 saw the birth of the metadataplatform, which Chen calls ‘a critical point in classical User Generated Content’. Envisioning 2008, Chen firstly sees an explosion of open contents and, secondly, the rise of the ubiquitous platform of data and creation, such as the iPhone and the Nintendo DS. A third essential vision for 2008 is the recursive stratification – indefinite division into subgroups- of web API with the appearing of “API’s of API’s”. Fourth, Chen predicts a ‘war over openness, which platform can be more open than the other one?’

As an example of Japanese culture and the chain of creativity mentioned earlier, Chen shows Japanese videosharing service Nico Nico Douga. By analyzing this video service, Chen wants to clarify what creativity is in this whole situation. He concludes that comments are ‘becoming constituents of the original work, affecting both authorship and spectatorship. It is a shift from dialogue to symlogue, because narrative control is shared and over time content is nurtured, fermentative’. As examples of symlogue, he mentions M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands, where both hands share narrative control and are also fermentative of nature. On Nico Nico Douga, a movement has emerged that uses original material and builds upon it by using, for example, the VOCALOID sound plugin.

Chen emphasizes that he doesn not want to focuss on the horizontal effects, or the chain of creativity, but he asks himself the question of ‘how to open this up on a vertical level?’ For a recent exhibition, Chen cooperated with a well-known Japanese author, who wrote a new book on the spot. New chapters could be downloaded through the Internet. Chen: ‘Normally it is considered embarassing to show how a writer writes. By showing this process, a new relationship between reader and author is created’. Chen also shows a recording of twenty-four hours of editting on a single Wikipedia page. This ‘opening up of revision’, is what Chen regards as the next step in opening up the ‘commons’. It exemplifies the ‘open ecology of digital contents’ and ‘fermentative ecology’ that Chen mentions in his final words.

All photography, copyright Anne Helmond