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An Authentic Commons Is Not a Temporary Affair
An Interview with Rick Prelinger

By Sarah Schultz & Sarah Peters

Rick Prelinger is best known as the founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of thousands of advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films 
available for public use, a portion of which are accessible online for free viewing, downloading, and remixing. A writer, filmmaker, and longtime advocate for the public domain, Prelinger was invited by artist collective Futurefarmers to give a talk on the commons for the core participants of A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard in August 2010. During his visit to the Walker, Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters posed these questions about the relationship between commons and museums, and the complications of institutional forays into social practice.

Sarah Schultz & Sarah Peters

What can the model of a commons offer an art institution?

Rick Prelinger

Open Field offers us an unusual opportunity—to throw light on, and perhaps even to resolve for a time—the contentious and vexing relationship between what we think of as “art” and what we call “craft,” “social practice,” “maker culture” and yes, “political activity.”

As civic actors, artists have been notoriously unsuccessful at causing social change on a macro level. While we’ve collectively helped to construct one of the most culturally exciting periods in recent history, we’ve had no success halting militarism, reversing accelerating economic inequalities, or grafting our values and ideas onto a working political framework. I believe we’ve experienced these chronic failures traumatically, and we’ve adapted by reconfiguring our senses of ourselves and our work to focus on smaller, more autonomous, and more achievable outcomes.

On a micro level, we’ve been much more successful, and our victories come in many flavors. We’ve taken performance into public spaces, invented new objects, planted vegetables, floated conceptual projects, sketched out utopias, and called attention to conditions that must change. This and more constitute the labor of twenty-first-century artists. We work, however, in a staccato manner: we conceive projects, we fund (or don’t fund) them, perform them, evaluate them, possibly hand them over to the community, and then—we move on. Admittedly, there are exceptions, but most often we behave like serial monogamists, living as fully as we can within a moment until the next moment arrives. Our social practice is almost always short-term. We don’t run community organizations; we don’t build permanent workshops for makers; we do propose concepts, but we generally aren’t bound by the consequences of our propositions. None of this is necessarily bad; in fact, it’s quite traditional. While we work in constantly changing environments and newly emerging media forms, our social function remains much the same. And as long as these conditions prevail, Open Field will be a playground, a temporary (and not terribly autonomous) zone, incubating crops that die in the autumn and sprout again in spring.

Open Field could certainly evolve into a bona fide commons, or at least as much of a commons as can exist within current society, but an authentic commons is not a temporary affair. Building a place where tools, ideas, and projects are shared and money wields no power is a profoundly urgent and exciting experiment, but its success would require that we redefine what we do as artists. We’d have to move beyond a demonstrative mindset and into a productive mode, and to build a more permanent presence geared to supplying goods and services, tangible and intangible, that society doesn’t currently provide. We might have to chip away at the “visiting artist” paradigm as well, because residency, longevity, and accountability are greater enablers of community. Finally, it might make sense to try to redefine privilege as an outgrowth of participation in the community, rather than individual reputation, and find new ways to distribute agency, control, and attribution.

I’m not arguing for an end to art or for self-effacement on the part of artists. Rather, I imagine the commons as a space where art practice can find new meaning as it addresses deeply intractable and unsolved dilemmas. Not a single year’s crop, but a field with many harvests.

Schultz & Peters

Is the word “commons” a useful term? Is this concept effective for creating real change?

Prelinger

As the term “commons” works its way into everyday speech, it runs the risk of being appropriated to describe arrangements and schemes that have little to do with collective ownership (non-ownership!) or shared resources. If the word goes the way of “organic” and “sustainable,” we’ll have an issue unless we work hard to let our practice lead our language, rather than the opposite.

Schultz & Peters

What is the scale of the commons; what units do we use to measure it? Does a commons have to be intimate to be successful?

Prelinger

At present, commons-based initiatives are by necessity micro-narratives, scaled to the levels of neighborhoods, blocks, or grassy spaces outside museums. But the micro—the intimate—is the prerequisite to imagining the macro. While it may be frustrating to restrict ourselves to the local, it is much more difficult to work toward commons-based solutions on a grander level. This limitation is time-dependent, and I would suggest that we should enjoy working locally while we still have the freedom to do so.

Schultz & Peters

How do you make the commons essential rather than a choice? How do you virally build sharing into something so that it can’t be taken away?

Prelinger

Building sharing, interdependence, and non-ownership into a good, a practice, or a place is a most difficult problem. Schemes such as the General Public License (GPL) and the Creative Commons CC0 license make it possible to irrevocably build sharing into the core of an intangible good such as software or digital content, but few working schemes exist for tangible goods. As artist Amy Balkin points out in her piece This is the Public Domain, our current legal regime requires that all real property have a distinct owner. We might be able to stretch intangible licensing models into the tangible world, but doing so on a voluntary basis falls far short of permanently viralizing non-owned status.

Intentionally devaluing property by rendering it overabundant or manipulating its market price works well, but can have destructive consequences. The government of Venezuela subsidizes gasoline within its borders; as of spring 2011, the price was about twelve cents per gallon, and Venezuelan society has been criticized for its overdependence on motor vehicles. Google Maps has caused the price of dashboard-mounted GPS units to drop by as much as seventy-five percent, a disruption that may threaten new product development by GPS receiver manufacturers. File sharing has made a galaxy of sounds and images accessible to a wider audience, but recording and motion-picture trade associations have responded by suing downloaders.

As we evolve new models of value and exchange, necessity is likely to play a greater role than altruism. Real-world tests that we haven’t yet had to experience will measure the survivability of commons-oriented ideas.

Book: Conversations on the Commons

Edited by Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters, Conversations on the Commons includes contributions by Susannah Bielak, Steve Dietz, Stephen Duncombe, Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine), Lewis Hyde, Jon Ippolito, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Machine Project (Mark Allen), Sarah Peters, Rick Prelinger, Red76 (Courtney Dailey, Dylan Gauthier, Sam Gould, Gabriel Mindel Saloman, Mike Wolf), Sarah Schultz, Scott Stulen, and Works Progress (Colin Kloecker, Shanai Matteson).

Creative Commons