Common Property

By Yukiko Jungesblut, 8 February 2005

The Sixth Werkleitz Biennial may not have taken place in Werkleitz, but this year’s festival and the week of open workshops and seminars preceding it combined cultural and political responses to ‘the tightening of ownership structures and property rights’ with a certain sense of place. Yukiko Jungesblut reports

Do you know Halle? Imagine an ordinary city in Eastern Germany – with houses, old fashioned trams, a little bit of green. Not particularly fashionable, (re)construction sites, restored Wilhelminian mansions, newly opened shops, medieval churches, a market square that feels distinctly undercrowded. It is orderly, no one is in much of a hurry, the atmosphere covered by a sepia filter. This is Halle. Zoom out. A city spreading out in an area that once was the core of the chemical industry of the GDR, 238,000 people going about their daily lives. Pan, touch lightly on Halle Neustadt – obsolete claim for an architectural vision of perfect, centralised planning become stone, a socialist monument to Utopia now brightly retinted, yet still a zone of disenchantment, prey to desertion. Pan on. Back to the historical parts of the city. Now zoom in.

Volkspark – originally a somewhat austere workers’ club, it has been redesigned as an exhibition space. This was the new home of the Werkleitz Biennial, September 2004. Tag line: Common Property/ Allgemeingut. Duration: five days of workshops, five days of exhibitions. In its established half film festival, half art biennial mix, time and space were dedicated to the discussion, the twisting, the materialisation, the musicalisation, the reflection, the pingponging of one term – ‘common property’ – seen as a theme with variations and subthemes, installed as a net of associations with the occasional political kick. This was in line with the former function of the building – a space for debate.

‘Addressing the cultural, social and economic conditions and consequences effected by the tightening of current ownership structures and property rights,’ the Biennial featured ‘artistic positions that, in view of the debates on intellectual property, raise pivotal questions concerning the access and claim to knowledge and information as well as the demand for common property.’ Like an octopus (with more than eight arms) the Biennial branched out into the space of discourses, the imaginary space of collective memory, into urban space and web space. Consider the rooms of the Volkspark as the principal space: a series of installations – a lot of them intervention based, many of them with a decidedly sociological or politological leaning – were on display. An entire room was set aside for the internet and internet projects, with a supersonic screen saver – 100,000 images from commercial photo archives, dashing by at a frequency that made discerning individual images impossible. In addition there were also archive rooms and club rooms. The debates with the experts ranged from arguing about the implications of patent restrictions to those of copyright. These were presented in the bigger halls and were quite eagerly attended.

Echoing the design and culture of the traditional workers’s club there was also a room in which outputs from the ‘kindergarten’ of the Halle School of Common Property, held at the local school for the blind in the first week, were re-presented during the art show. The discussion and (inter-)action loaded days of the workshops reappeared in the solidified form of a panel display.

Excursions to local knowledge archives (museums, parks) and some interventions in the city itself served to link the made the link the representational space of the Biennial to its urban space and vice versa, while objects on loan from the public museums of Halle could be found in the exhibition space.

In contrast to the Biennial’s often rather dry, if well informed, installations, a beautifully compiled film programme seemed to function as the heart of the event. Mixing genres, formats, eras and continents, there were striking images and testimonies – classics by Alain Resnais or Len Lye, funkadelic energy with Craig Baldwin. The multitude of films and angles was impressive, spanning registers of sheer anger, philosophical contemplation, joyful sarcasm to silent mourning – and usually took a firm stance on a common property related issue.

By bringing together different points of view on and manifestations of the topic, Werkleitz confronted you with a material condensation of your own implicit knowledge about common property. The films and the Biennial more generally made this elusive concept more tangible and more real, even if it remained impossible to give one definite statement on what ‘common property’ really means and implies. Different (classes of) people have different views. For many working in what is deemed the cultural sector, questions concerning the rather immaterial issues of intellectual property or copyright/authorship and remuneration might seem the most obvious point of departure, whereas for a health worker, directly confronted with the fatal scarcity of affordable medication that arises from the protection of copyrighted drugs, the point of attack obviously lies elsewhere.

The most theoretical of the various workshops which addressed the issue of common property in different ways was Mute’s. It was mainly devoted to developing ideas for a project called ‘KnowFuture’ and involved much discussion of the ‘intellectual commons’. In particular the meaning of ‘free’ (as in libre as opposed to just – gratis) was a flashpoint: how could the ‘free system’ be maintained considering that the contributors to this system also need something to live on (and this may well be ‘the enemy’). There was a quick tour through the information technology necessary to embark on file sharing and related practices (not always self-explanatory to an outsider), which led to a heated debate about the status of piracy. Apart from the apparent benefits of enabling individuals and groups to consume (im)material products at a lower price, should piracy be seen as a truly subversive (and socially transformative) practice or rather more as a representational or symbolic action, a ‘statement’ about sharing, so to speak? No agreement was reached.

Beyond this, the debates confronted the place of copyright within a web of administrative, legal or even political technicalities (the structure of licensing, bi-lateral versus multilateral treaties, etc.) which would be too complex to report here. What remained a question throughout, however, was how a non-expert might intervene in all these issues (undoubtedly of universal relevance) without having to become a legal and political adept themselves.

Perhaps an event like Werkleitz helps to provide a better grasp of the issues by giving physical access to a debate which, although very real, by its nature often remains hidden. And this aspect of the physicality or materiality of representation leads on to what was really interesting about Werkleitz: you could meet people there who have (to a degree) a common interest. Activists, culture jammers, pirates, protesters and also of course more moderate ‘versions’ of these – all of them engaged in what for some is a battle, for some a quest, for some a field of study but for all an attempt to make things better, and most of them driven by some sense of urgency. If you were not already in the individual circles from which they came, how would you meet ‘them’? The space, in this case, really did make meetings and exchanges possible.

In the end, the Biennial left me with a sense of collective agency or a willingness to act. Not only at the Biennial but beyond its doors in the dystopian space of Halle Neustadt, perhaps, there is self-organised resistance to the appropriation of common property which affects us all. Maybe in the future the Biennial will manage to tie in more closely with the city and the struggles which surround it, allowing, to a greater extent, specialist knowledge to be exchanged with that of the everyday.

INFO For more info on the discussion, artworks, and catalogue:

Yukiko Jungesblut <yuki.jungesblut AT> is currently active as a research member of the Zonographic Society