Substrate: the common and the doxa of property
This is a written version of a presentation from the 7th May 2014, my contribution to the Substrate Symposium (part 3) held at Chelsea College of Arts, it was written to be published in Bright Light
I haven't had time to write a paper for the Substrate workshop, sorry. Anyway, I sensed they're more an informal sharing of ideas than an academic performance. So, I made notes and I'll speak for as long as the media file that's playing lasts [a media file is playing from my laptop and displaying on a plasma screen]. The file is ten minutes and thirty six seconds long.
I came to some of the other Substrate workshops and to be honest I was a bit annoyed. Frustrated even. People seemed to confuse materials, canvas weights and paper textures, with substrates. ‘Substrate’ - I looked it up on Wikipedia - is described as an underlying layer, something profound. Something foundational. Like resources. Like oil, minerals, or justice, even freedom itself. Maybe water? I began to think of energy, sunlight, as a substrate and everything else as its solidified, liquidised or material form.
And as always, I began to worry about who has access to these substrates, these foundational resources. How a commons-like access, by which I mean there are few, if any, rights of exclusion, are contested and even destroyed by the idea of substrates as a property. Like oil. Like fossil fuels. Properties produced by legal codes and force, creating owners, ownership rights, and rights of exclusion. Rights to exploit.
So what are the substrates in cultural fields? Creativity?
No. Because all creative acts are born into property, into copyright. Any instance of a thing you bring into the world, sufficiently different from anything else before it, is defined as a property, it belongs to you and is legally yours. Currently, yours for the rest of your natural life, plus seventy years. Copyright law evolved to enable literary authors to financially profit from their creativity after the advent of cheap reproduction, cheap printing in the early eighteenth century. The Statute of Anne of 1709, [hmm.......was it 1709?] of Queen Anne, was intended to stop other printers printing an author’s text and selling it. Copyright granted rights of restriction from unauthorised reproduction for fourteen years, then the published work would return to the commons, where anyone could copy, add, modify and re-publish it. There was a balance struck between financially rewarding the author and enriching the common substrate of creative resources.
Copyright produces the ideological figure of the author, as a singular, bounded subject, as the source of the creative instance. It emphasises individual contribution and obscures the common. It’s no surprise to me that authorial and authority have the same root, linked by the power and the legal right to exert that power, to exclude. Largely unchanged for more than 200 years, copyright was extended in 1928 to 30 years, then quickly extended to the natural life of the apparent author, then the life of the author plus 30, then 50 years, and in 1997 extended to the life of the author plus 70 years. I'm sure lobbyists from the 'creative industries' are seeking extensions as I speak. And let’s be clear, it’s not authors or artists that are being rewarded here, but vast content and rights management industries.