neil cummings

Histories of the Present

In 2008 I took part in an event called Disclosures II: The Middle Ages it was part of Nottingham Contemporary’s Histories of the Present, and a beautiful publication of the year long series of events has just been published.

Histories of the Present

Disclosures II: The Middle Ages explored the idea of ‘commons’, both in the sense of agricultural commons (the grazing of animals and growing of crops on shared land) and what’s increasingly known as the ‘cultural commons’: the shared production and free distribution of digital resources, and more broadly culture in general.

Disclosures II: was set in the unique Nottinghamshire village of Laxton: unique in that it is the last substantial surviving example of the medieval ‘open field’ system of farming in England.

In Laxton farmers farm individual strips of land in shared fields, now owned by the Crown, as they have done for centuries.

To what extent does Laxton’s survival through centuries of the enclosure of agricultural commons suggest precedents for the various ways cultural producers and activists seek to enlarge the public domain of today’s knowledge economy?

Disclosures II: the Middle Ages spans the Agrarian Age and the Information Age through a rich and engaging day of talks, games, walks, conversations, artworks and socialising in Laxton.

Curated by Anna Colin and Mia Jankowicz of Gassworks with Alex Farquharson, Director, Nottingham Contemporary.




Part I

11:00 · Meeting in Mount Street, Nottingham. A bus tour of Nottingham’s former common lands and open fields led by artist and historian Chris Matthews.

11:45 · Departure to Laxton. Screening of a 23-minute documentary video narrated by John Beckett (1984) providing an insight into how the open field system has been operated over the years by the Gait and Common and the tenant farmers.

12:30 · Arrival in Laxton, followed by lunch with pig roast, local produce, vegetarian option and medieval recipes. Location: Mike Jackson’s barn.

13:30 · Introduction to Disclosures II: The Middle Ages.

13:50 · Lecture by John Beckett, Professor of English Regional History at the University of Nottingham and author of Laxton, England’s Last Open Field Village (1989).

14:30 · Guided walk around Laxton Castle, Laxton’s strip farming and manorial system led by Prof. John Beckett and Stuart Rose (Laxton farmer, Clerk to the Gaits and Commons and trustee of the Laxton Visitor Centre). Departure from Mike Jackson’s barn.

15:45 · Screening of Bring Back Robin Hood by Olivia Plender (30 min).

Part II

Choice A
16:15 · Individual presentations followed by a panel discussion around themes of land control and ownership, history and environmental sustainability as dealt by cultural producers.

With Neil Cummings (artist and member of the research cluster Critical Practice, London), Jai Redman and Joe Richardson (Ultimate Holding Company, Manchester, a radical art and design studio). Location: Mike Jackson’s barn.

Choice B
16:15 · Artist Olivia Plender introduces Set Sail for the Levant, her board game inspired by the 16th century Royal Game of the Goose. The public are invited to play and help shape the rules of a game in the making. Location: Mike Jackson’s cowshed.

Part III

18:00 · Eileen Simpson and Ben White (Open Music Archive) use Declose, the vinyl battle tool created for Disclosures I, to make music for a party in the barn.

Declose is a copyleft licensed 12″ vinyl scratch tool containing a range of samples, beats and extracts made from out of copyright blues, jazz and folk housed in the Open Music Archive. Declose was made in collaboration with music producers from the burntprogress community.

Download the Declose record from:

21:00 · Return to Nottingham. Meeting point: the Dovecote Inn car park.


Here is a transcript of my presentation


Wow, the first time I’ve ever spoken in a barn! 
Well its been a fascinating day, so far.

I thought I would talk a little bit about some of the connections I’ve made in some recent projects, between the commons in the agricultural sense, and contemporary notions of a digital or ‘knowledge commons’. And to see what the similarities and differences might be. I thought I’d talk about a project I did in Liverpool, in 2004, which was actually called The Commons.  The invitation was to take part in the Liverpool Biennial; to spend time in the city of Liverpool and to research and think about the experience of being in Liverpool.  Anyone who has spent any time the city in 2004 couldn’t help but be awed by the forces of regeneration at work - an enormous amount of money was pouring in from Europe. 

Being part of the Liverpool Biennial, and being an artist, I realised that I was also ‘caught up’ in these forces of regeneration. Of course it was bidding for Capital of Culture status, which it hadn’t yet achieved. So I began to think, well what’s regeneration about?  What’s it for? And who is it for?  So I started to research a little bit about the history of Liverpool. I realised, through working with a historian Jane Longmore, that a huge part of Liverpool, in fact over half of the city, is built upon a former commons.  This is the commons in the sense that John Beckett was referring to this morning, part of the forest, river or land where resources can be utilised. This huge part here, (I point to a projected image of a Map of Liverpool from 1650) effectively the east of the city of Liverpool, is built upon a former commons. 

On this overlay, (I point to another projected image) this is the Pool of Liverpool, here is the commons, and this is an 18th Century city plan. So you can see how the city is laid out over the commons. What I proposed for the Liverpool Biennial, was a series of  four events, a kind of distributed conference that would explore the historic commons in Liverpool and tease out some contemporary connections. 

The first event was in the Civil Court, because Civil Law in Britain, or what used to be called Common Law is based upon precedent. Previously shared conventions and common practices, conventions which are then incorporated into Common Law. This is not a law that is imposed by statute from above.  The talk was by the Libre Society who research and campaigned for Internet freedom and digital rights.  They made this connection between - common law and some of the legal struggles around information and Intellectual Property happening now. 

There was a fantastic talk by historian, Jane Longmore, in which she teased out the history of the commons in Liverpool.  The talk was sited in the only remaining open public space left from the commons, which is St Johns Gardens

We also found the last sliver of surviving commons in Liverpool, which is basically a traffic island in one of the suburbs; at Wavertree. And there was a talk on the traffic island by a local activist Mike Lane of Whistleblower. Mike was trying to defend working class communities in Liverpool from regeneration. Regeneration for Mike is essentially a middle class drive to move the working class out, and profit from property redevelopment.

Finally there was a talk in the first Free Public Library in Liverpool from Colin Dyas, development Manager of Liverpool Vision, one of the agencies involved in the process of regeneration. We could think of the library, founded in the 1850’s and the whole Free Library movement as being instrumental in the struggle for 'rights of access' to public knowledge and information

So although the Commons project began with research into traditions around land rights and land use, it also spread into areas, like law, knowledge and information that seemed to have a contemporary relevance. During the project we began to discuss whether there are a set of values which are held in common for all peoples, for all nations; something like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So is that a commons?  Is the water we drink, the air we breathe, our shared genetic heritage - in 2003 there was a struggle to sequence the human genome, a race between private  a public interests - could we call the human genome a kind of commons?  We might want to add cultural practices: are they a kind of commons that shouldn’t be privatised and enclosed? Because Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggests such a thing:

 “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of a community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” 

So in a way, culture  could be enshrined as a kind of commons. We’ve heard today the commons have been slowly depleted in Europe since the Middle Ages. The drive to expropriate the commons, to convert these resources into various forms of either public or private property, has accompanied state democracies as they’ve rolled out public projects. And it has also followed the dominance of the competitive market and the forces of privatisation as an ideological force. 

Now I understand that the commons are not a universal value.  There’s something we heard today about different kinds of commons, about being ‘in common’ and also having resources that are somehow common. Now, I’m not suggested there’s a coherence, agreement, but the project I set up called ‘The Commons’ was a way of exploring the contested notion of the commons.  The project for me highlighted this tension between what we might call a private property-based notion of culture, and a mutual, collaboratively assembled model of culture.  This property-based model of culture, the one that uses enclosure as its model, has been called ‘The Oil of the 21st Century’ by Mark Getty, Chairman of Getty Images.  Any of you who have ever tried to access a digital image will know there are two giant picture libraries on the Internet: one is Getty Images, and the other is Corbis, owned by Bill Gates.  Gates, Getty and others are buying up image libraries and archives, and privatising their content. In a similar way to how land and natural resources have  been privatised from the Middle Ages onwards.  So the ‘Oil of the 21st Century’ is basically Intellectual Property, or I.P., as Lawyers like to call it.  It’s the idea that you can own, enclose and financially capitalise images, knowledge, ideas and information.

To understand how this is possible I’m going to say a little, and rather crudely about Copyright.  Copyright evolved to protect the rights of authors to profit from their work in the 18th century.  Cheap printing in the 18th century meant an author’s work could be easily reproduced. So the Statute of Anne came into being in 1709 to try to fix an author’s property relationship to the texts they produced.  Copyright initially lasted for 14 years, so you could copyright a text and say "that text is mine, I authored it, it belongs to me.  You can’t use it for 14 years". After 14 years, the text would revert to the commons, it would fall back into the public domain.  So initially there was a balance between the rights of privatisation and enclosure and the rights of the commons.  Copyright frames the ideological figure of the author; the individual who 'originates' the work becomes legally bounded, and ideologically framed by Law.  Copyright was extended almost immediately to 15 years, but then for 200 years remained pretty much untouched.  It was only in 1928 that it was extended to 30 years, at a time when a mass media  industry is beginning to build itself around rights to information and images.  Then it was extended to the life of the author, and then quite quickly it was extended to the life of the author plus 20 years. Now it has been extended to the life of the author plus 70 years, because Mickey Mouse is about to come out of copyright!  So the Film, Music  and publishing Industry is always trying to extend the rights of enclosure, to defend its property (not those of authors) and to defend its rights to privatise  creative material.  Copyright works by exclusion: if I can prove that I wrote that text, it's mine. And you can’t copy  it, unless I say-so in writing. This works beautifully when the copyrighted artefact is material thing;  like a book, painting, sculpture or object. Like a table.  These things move slowly, they are hard to copy.  If I copy a painting, my copy of the painting refers back to the thing copied, it has a precedent, and from which we can tell the difference between model and copy. This I understand, this makes sense. 

Also, If I write a book, the publisher produces 50 copies, someone in the audience kindly buys a copy, there are only 49 books left. So in the world of  bounded, and slow moving material things, scarcity is the  mechanism that determines value.  The more people who use a finite resource, the scarcer it becomes and the more expensive the remaining resources are. There’s a famous essay about the commons called The Tragedy of the Commons from 1968 by someone called Garrett Hardin and he makes this very point. He says if too many people put their animals on the commons we’ll run out of feed.  In a general sense scarcity is what drives value in the world of material things that move relatively slowly.

In the world of digital information, the world we’ve inhabited roughly for the last 20 years, I can make a copy of a digital image, sound, a digital text. and my copying of that media does not deplete the original. There aren’t less digital bits of information in the world.  Scarcity in the world of digital things no longer pertains.  I can make a copy at almost zero cost, literally at the click of a button and I can send it to all my friends and family with another click of the button.  The logic of digital information is to copy and share, whether we like it or not. The political economy of a slow moving, bounded world of scarce material things no longer has traction – on digital information and knowledge

In fact we might want to invert the model of the material commons: the more people sharing my digital information, the better that information becomes. We could even replace scarcity with abundance.

Which brings me to Free/Libre or Open Source Software – FLOSS for short. 

Most of the software that runs most of your computers is owned by either Microsoft or Apple Macintosh.  Imagine you are a farmer, you buy a tractor and the bulb goes in the headlamp of the tractor and you’re not allowed to open the headlamp to replace the bulb. How stupid is that?  It means the farmer just licensed the functionality of the tractor, but never owns or is not allowed to interfere with the workings of the tractor itself.  Well that’s the same with your Microsoft computer or your Apple Mac computer: you are not allowed to mess with the system that runs it, so you only license the functionality of the computer, you never own or are allowed to interfere with its 'source code'.  A group of people thought: this can’t be right, computers are going to increasingly dominate our world, how can it be right that the thing I use is not mine, how can it be right that I just lease the language I use to express myself from someone else?  So they set about making their own operating system.  The operating system that runs my computer is the most famous of FLOSS software, it’s called Linux.  It’s built by an agglomeration of software developers from all over the world.  In case you think FLOSS is a bit geeky, 60% of the Internet is run from Open Source Software: Apache software runs the backbone infrastructure of the Internet.  So it’s not some nerdy geek’s thing, it’s actually very sound and reliable. Linux is cooperatively produced and it’s an often cited model of co-production.  The ethic behind the software that my computer runs-on, is that I’m free to open up the software, to modify that software and to redistribute it to anyone else I want.  So these are the 3 important rights about FLOSS, and by extension the digital commons: you can freely use, modify and redistribute.     

This ethic to take, modify and redistribute is behind a lot of what’s called Web 2 development. An example of this that most people come into contact with is Wikipedia.  Does everyone know about Wikipedia?  It’s a free online encyclopaedia.  Does everyone know about the Edit button in Wikipedia?  At the top of every page, you can click edit and you can add your knowledge to that encyclopaedia.  So it’s something that we’re all building collaboratively together. Wikipedia runs on Free/Libre Open Software and it reproduces its ethic in how the encyclopedia itself functions; it’s a knowledge commons.

Now, everything is born into copyright.  Every new image, sound sequence, text, image, and line of software code. If I can prove that the sequence of words that I’ve written have never been written before, those words belong to me.  I don’t have to do anything to prove that ; like register the text, or photograph it with a current newspaper, or post it back to myself to secure a  date-stamped postmark. Copyright exists everywhere, all the time; everything is born into copyright, and every creative act is already imagined as a property. So obviously, through the logic of copyright, anyone who contributes to FLOSS software, or to wikipedia will own that code, text or knowledge as a property, whether they want to or not.  They can’t avoid the fact that it’s attached to them, as an expression given form by an author. So copyright destroys the very idea of a commons, and some people think that’s what its job is. But a genius called Richard Stallman, whose a software developer, who did a lot of work on early FLOSS software, realised that copyright’s job was to stop creative, shared cultural production, so he wrote a piece of legal code, called the General Public Licence, the GPL, in 1989. The GPL licenses authors out of copright.

What the GPL does, is that it enshrines in legal code the ethic of FLOSS software, to use, modify and to redistribute. The genius of the GPL is that, if I write a piece of software code, or if I write a text, take a photograph, or make a film and I license it  under the terms of the GPL you can take my film, my text or my photograph and - recombine, merge or aggregate it into, your film, your text, or your photograph. The only proviso is –and this is the genius part- your ‘new’ work also has to be licensed in the same way.  The GPL has a viral intention, and begins to build a digital commons of shared resources. No one is able to re-enclose the common-resources created by the GPL.  So it’s a piece of legal code that builds digital resources for a new commons. A version of the GPL license protects the software for wikipedia, and another ensures the knowledge contributed cannot be enclosed by copyright.

The GPL is a piece of legal code that particularly applies to software and digital artefacts, but then other lawyers developed legal code based on the GPL called the Creative Commons.  Of course it makes a nice link to the idea of commons, but basically it does exactly the same as GPL, although there are several different licenses and easily explained; it makes it more userfriendly for musicians, writers, artists, and filmmakers. Since 2004, I’ve tried whenever possible to license everything I’ve done under the Creative Commons - to start building this Creative Commons for everyone.      

(Referring to a slide) Oops, I'm running out of time. This is Generosity a project that was commissioned for an exhibition in the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria.  Another artist called  Marysia Lewandowska and I were given the use of this house within a museum and we worked with a local radio station - a free local radio station, Radio Helsinki - and they broadcast from this house for the month-long duration of the project.  They run on generosity, most contributors are enthusiasts and volunteers, and they licence all their material under Creative Commons.  So again it was a way of looping some of the ethic I’ve been talking about in terms of the Cultural Commons through some of the work I am producing as an artist.   

Most recently I’ve been working with a group of fellow artists, researchers and academics at Chelsea College of Art and Design.  We have a small research group called Critical Practice.  Critical Practice is trying to deploy the ethic of the commons in what we produce, so that everything we produce, we guarantee, will be publicly licensed, We are, after all, publicly funded.

Maybe that's enough. Any questions?


Related projects include Substrate or take a look at the Enthusiasts archive I co-founded, or the related Procesos de archivo /Archivalprocess

53.19628, -0.91888

Mike Jackson’s barn
NG22 0NX
United Kingdom

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