neil cummings


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.

Still, Screen Tests 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.

Still, Screen Tests 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.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, evolved a kind of tripartite model of cultural reproduction, made-up of Habitus, Field and the less well known Doxa. Habitus consists of subjective, learned dispositions. Likes, dislikes, tastes, preferences, intuitions, that sort of thing. Fields are meshed, yet competitive flows of capital - cultural, educational, symbolic, political, legal or financial - structured by fluctuating rules, behaviours and institutions. And finally Doxa. Doxa to quote Bourdieu is ‘The meshing of internal subjective experience [his Habitus] and external objective structures’. It’s where the world appears as self-evident. That’s-just-how-it-is. Like time, like our experience of time, as a fairly arbitrary objective structure that we've completely internalised. I set my alarm clock at night and often wake up in the morning in time to turn it off, before it bleats. Or, automatically looking left as you step off the pavement to cross a road. That is, if you're born in the UK and crossing the road in the UK.

Still, Screen Tests For me copyright is doxic [is that a word?] it's a meshed internal subjective experience with external objective structures. We experience creativity and we reproduce creativity as individuated, as a property, as a scarce resource, precious, precious as a revenue stream. At the same time, we inhabit creative cultures riven with anxiety about plagiarism, copying, provenance and reproductions, replete with competition and unequal capital distribution. A culture of permissions. Dear DACS, Please can I reproduce that image in my artwork, I'm sorry I cannot afford the £756 you are quoting for the B&W reproduction rights... Copyright is a substrate of creativity, and copyright, like fossil fuels, is toxic.

Now, as I said earlier, copyright works by exclusion. In the world of material goods this makes some physical if not common sense. Physical things are bounded, slow moving and have a material presence. Think of a painting [points to a Chris Ofili painting hanging in the room] like this one; it exists in one place at one time, more or less. It’s sufficiently different from previous versions and to make a copy would be laborious, and although different, the copy would always refer back to the previous version. Like a footnote. These relations are rendered ironic by things made for reproduction, books, prints, photographs, sculptures, readymades...

My sketch of copyright, productive for almost 300 years is completely erased by our new everyday of digital information, where copy, modify, distribute, is the DNA of our practices. Like breathing. If the right to exclude makes some sense amongst physical things, to artificially define a finite resource, to differentiate model and copy, and to introduce scarcity amongst digital sounds, images, moving images, objects, texts, archives, collections, databases and creativity is stupid. It makes no sense. And yet copyright, although now it’s morphed into Intellectual Property (IP), is still creativity’s substrate. Mark Getty, whose family made their fortune from crude-oil extraction, speaking in 2006 as chairman of Getty Images, suggested that IP is, ’The oil of the 21st century’.

Still, Screen Tests Let me introduce a computer language programmer, a genius programmer called Richard Stallman. In the 1970s and 80s Richard was collaboratively writing programmes when he realised that companies and individuals were starting to claim property rights, Intellectual Property rights, over the code and they were restricting access. Richard felt that all languages, including programing languages are shared and of necessity non-owned and free. [A substrate?] And that a meaningful utterance is only possible by drawing upon, modifying and recombining resources that freely circulate within a community of speakers and listeners, or writers and readers. Restrictions in language limit the possible, it’s why we value freedom, and freedom of expression. He could see that all the ‘individual’ contributions to programing languages, all new knowledge, could be configured, no, worse! Would be born into property, as an Intellectual Property. And, indeed they are.

So, he wrote The General Public License (GPL) in 1989. The GPL is a piece of legal code that is able to license ‘software’ out of proprietary ownership – remember copyright still exists everywhere, and in all things - and protect it from any subsequent enclosure. The GPL enshrines the right to copy, modify and redistribute languages, and it has enabled Free, Libre or Open Source Software (FLOSS), to grow and even flourish. The Android mobile OS is probably the most common example, although various distributions of Linux are not far behind, [points], it's what's running my laptop. Most of the critical infrastructure for the internet runs on Apache, air traffic control, Linux, heart pacemakers... anyway. As well as the software, the ethic of FLOSS has generated and protected astonishing resources, like Wikipedia, Wordpress, or, and licenses have mutated from software's GPL to protect other things, other images, sounds, texts, objects, all kinds of things. The best known are Creative Commons licenses. It’s what this text is protected by.

Still, Screen Tests Oh, ok. The credits are rolling. I'm running out of time. So, I’ll try and explain the connection to the moving image document you've been watching, it’s called Screen Tests. I was invited in 2006 to participate in the British Art Show, I collaborated with three other artists Marysia Lewandowska, Ben White and Eileen Simpson. We realised that at each of the touring exhibitions venues, the host city had a public media archive for that region. In this case, in Manchester, it's the North West Film Archive. We contacted the archive and searched for orphaned, or out of copyright material, our intention was to edit a new 'film' from the digitised material, [we were doing something similar with recordings from the British Library for soundtracks], and then release all four films, from all four venues on a DVD, for free, with all of the source materials, under a creative commons license.

Screen Tests is assembled from fragments of film shot in the Manchester School of Art in the early 1930's, you can see it’s the first time staff, students, models, cleaners and cooks have ever seen a camera, they're all performing, exaggerating, mugging even for the camera. I was reminded of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests. The DVD was dependent on securing Arts Council Funding, it looked a long-shot. The North West Film Archive made us sign a contract stipulating what we could and could not do with the out-of-copyright moving image sequences, encoded as digital files.

Still, Screen Tests Surprisingly, we secured the money, started to produce the DVD, when the archive got cold feet. We could not release the digitised archival fragments. But, I said, it's in the contract. Why not?

Ummmm, the family [presumably the family of the filmmaker who had donated the material to the public archive] have rights, they've objected.

I said, what rights? What’s it got to do with them?

Ummm, we're not sure, but you can't release the material.

Why not, I said, it’s in the contract and the material is out-of-copyright, we have every right to release it, no?

Ummm yes, but no. You see the substrate, the substrate, the celluloid the moving images are stuck to, belong to us. We won't grant you permission.



Related projects include Social Cinema and the evolving Open Cinema


Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (pdf). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Getty, M. (2006) The oil of the 21st centuryperspectives on intellectual property.

Cummings, N., Lewandowska, M., Simpson, E. and White, B (2006) Screen tests.

51.4902, -0.1283

Chelsea College of Arts
16 John Islip Street
United Kingdom

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