Open to risk: notes from LiWoLi day two

Some personal thoughts from the goings-on at the second day of the 2012 LiWoLi festival.


Lovelocks being rearranged

Another glorious sunny day here in Linz, and today a workshop I'd been looking forward to. The description of Mey Lean Kronemann's Lovepicking workshop says it all really:

Love Locks are a custom by which padlocks are affixed to a bridge or similar public fixture by couples to symbolize their everlasting love. ...By lockpicking the Locks of Love, we question the idea of love or relationships being bolted and barred, closed like a prison or cage, which can only be opened by breaking it. The picked locks will be re-arranged into one long chain.

Now I find this idea really beautiful. It is cheeky and eloquent, and of course the visual symbolism is irresistable. I also like how this project applies the logic of hacking to non-technological forms of social control and ownership, linking 'radical openness' to gender, sexuality and relationships.

So we set off with our new lockpicking tools along the river, inexperienced but optimistic, with eyes peeled for those locks o' love. But what I hadn't anticipated was the feeling of guilt that washed over me at gently teasing open the locks of these unsuspecting couples, many of which had been lovingly decorated or engraved with messages. There is of course an unavoidable penetrative symbolism in lockpicking, which by its nature is also a nonconsensual one. Does this matter? Is consent even relevant when working with inanimate objects?

Consent, ethics, remixes

I got to think over some of these issues more when I chatted to Mey later on. We discussed the connections Lovepicking makes between hacking, public space, polyamoury and the ethical dilemmas of 'openness'. Many people, she said, have reacted to the project with disapproval at the Lovepickers' disrespectful hacking of other people's relationships. There is a strange, quasi-superstitious connection made between the couple and their lock - as if by tampering with one, you are tampering with the other.

This conflation of people with their objects is also something I've found repeatedly when interviewing artists about their relationship with the work they make. A common resistance to letting others freely remix the work is a fear that the artist herself will be tampered with, in some immaterial but important way. A clear link appears here to Heath's identity workshop yesterday: identity is the ability to control authenticity from a distance, abstracted from physical presence. One way of doing this is to create and assert ownership over objects, whose integrity is a guarantee of the identity they sustain. So in this sense, our picking and rearranging of the love locks is a threatening remix.

And it's a good example to open up some of the social issues raised by remixing, as Lovepicking doesn't get bogged down in legalistic copyright questions. Clearly, a lock left on a bridge has been abandoned in a public place and therefore open to tampering. And as Mey said, when you put love into a work (as these couples have done with their locks) you are dealing with ethics, not law. She also admitted to some hesitation about picking open particularly passionate locks, and we puzzled together over this question of how far 'respect' should be shown to the inanimate objects standing in for people - whether love locks, texts or artworks.

Open to risk

Of course, preferable to forcible hacking every time is the possibility for consensual and deliberately chosen openness - something I'm trying to move towards arguing for when it comes to control over artistic works. Polyamoury as the relationship equivalent is hinted at in this workshop in all but name, and there are interesting parallels between this practice of facing/overcoming jealousy and the practice of giving up proprietorial control. Copyright is after all a monopoly on reproduction, propped up with all manner of problematically gendered assumptions about partnership, procreation and control. In both open relationships and open culture we have a refusal of the logic of ownership, and its corresponding demand for control and monopoly. This is scary, but it is a good and growthful fear that I think we should explore.

Appropriate, then, that later today I found myself confronted with another, completely different set of fears. When a few of us had been looking over the LiWoLi programme we noticed Heath Bunting's 'Climbing Trees!' workshop, scheduled for today, with amused curiosity. What does tree climbing have to do with radical openness, exactly? But anyway, the sun was shining and after we returned from Lovepicking Heath was hanging around, keen to offer a second installment of the workshop for those who'd missed it earlier. Now, some vital part of my childhood must have been missing because I never climbed trees (except a couple of early and traumatically failed attempts) and the idea of scrambling up into them like the veritable monkeys doing this workshop fills me with dread. It was Mey who, strolling happily beside me, pointed out that this was precisely relevant to my research: facing and overcoming some deep-seated conditioned fear.

So yes, tree climbing is a form of hacking too, if you're one of those people who likes to describe anything vaguely subversive as 'hacking' this or 'opening' that. Heath described in his New Identity workshop yesterday his aim of bringing people to a point where they realize things are possible that they had thought impossible; that more can be done than we first assume. As a sports-averse academic type it's good to be reminded that this realization can be reached as much with the body as with the mind: as surely by scrambling furiously against vertical bark as by the intellectual gesture of copyleft; as surely in the maddening clicks of a resistant padlock as in the hours of debate that follow its eventual opening.

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