What is a person? - Notes from LiWoLi day one

Some personal thoughts from the goings-on at the first day of the 2012 LiWoLi festival in Linz, "a community festival, open lab and annual meeting spot for artists, educators and developers using and creating Free Software (FLOSS), Open Hardware and Open Design in the artistic and cultural context".

LiWoLi outdoor space at Stadtwerkstatt
Photo: Dave Young

New identities

>> audio extract of New Identity workshop

Question: if a salad is made in Britain with Chinese ingredients by Polish workers, what is its nationality? Or: do you own your name? These were some of the impossible questions put to us today by Heath Bunting, round a wooden table in the conspiratorially dark room at the top of the Stadtwerkstatt. After a brief introduction to his Status Project - which maps out ways of constructing a new identity from scratch - we dived right into the juicy debates that this project opens up. Adopting an air described by another participant as "halfway between flight attendant and headmaster", Heath guided us through a rigourous analysis of each of the deceptively simple components composing a legal identity.

How closely can physical date of birth, for example, be correlated with legal DOB? What exactly is a signature? Over the course of this fascinating and lively discussion we got a good way into the conceptual issues that are up for debate here. A human (physical body) is distinct from a person (legal and social identity). To simply schange your name is not to change identity; to assume a new identity is to assume a new social status - with all the rights that identity is entitled to.

From this skillfully facilitated discussion, Heath's questions emerged clearly enough. On what basis do we assign identities to humans, and what relationship do we have to those identities once formed? Of course there are also important class implications in here too, which are outlined prominently in Heath's own description of the project. Lower-class humans are tied to one identity over which they have little control, while those higher up the pecking order create multiple, flexible identities (corporations) for the purposes of claiming new rights, protections and possibilities.

Fakes and originals

It was significant that headmaster-Heath forbade us from using the word "fake" when describing these newly constructed identities. Of course, to create something supposedly natural from scratch is to reveal at the same time the artificiality of the socially-constructed "natural" original. This tactical creation of multiple identities sparked connections in my mind to my own research on artistic identity and authorship. From a copyright perspective, attribution is everything. It relies on an autonomous, identifiable person to credit with making the work. We can challenge this convention with close analysis of artistic creation and its inherent plagiarism, but to attack the notion of identity head-on as this project does is another powerful approach. The question becomes not only, "where do artworks come from?" but also, "where do authors come from?". How does a name or signature come to designate - indeed to be conflated with - a single creator, and with how much legitimacy?

What is an author?

This tricky question of what an author is - so closely tied to the question of what a person really is - was continued later in the day with Dmytri Kleiner, who presented his 2010 Telekommunist Manifesto as one of the evening's talks. Of course for old-skool commies like Dmytri, the cultural producer is a worker first and foremost. And later on, watching a glorious sunset over the Ars Electronica Center, I picked his brains about some of these definitions. (Interview transcript coming soon.) What is the difference between a worker and an author? On what basis do we make and then surrender a claim to copyright as per his Copyfarleft proposal?

Copyfarleft has drawn some interesting debate and criticism over the last couple of years for trying to figure out a workable rejection of both the indiscriminately generous gesture of completely open licenses, and also the the frustrating restrictions of noncommercial ones. In a thought-provoking blog post leading up to LiWoLi, Dmytri summarized this stance in relation to the festival's invocation of 'radical opennes'. "To be open," he wrote, "we need to be safe and we need to be alive." This requires certain restrictions on openness which protect creators from capitalist exploitation, "working towards removing the fundamental obstacles to openness that exist, perhaps even in ways that are not open, or less open than we might like."

While alarm bells always ring for me at this kind of means/ends logic, Dmytri's critique of open culture's privileged assumptions poses a valid challenge. I would like to think that surrendering copyright has the potential to be one of those experiments with the self which move away from notions of autonomy and safety based on isolation, denial, monopoly, and towards a more social conception of a self who - as Heath's workshop today so graphically revealed - is constructed by and reliant upon its peers. But to make this gesture requires a certain amount of privilege (in privacy, in security, in income) which is not open to all. Abandoning the self in a masochistic mystical gesture is not on its own a satisfactory response to a social and economic situation in which we must contend with Heath's "class systems of human being management"; those systems which assign our identities for us, whether we like them or not.

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