Some Reflections on Ownership
In a discussion with some futures and systems practitioners about generative moments, we were asked about what we had observed as particularly generative moments. Situations and processes that led to something that was particularly new, appropriate or otherwise significantly generative. This was reinforced by several discussions, including some at the Transform Symposium held at the University for Applied Arts a few days ago. So here is a re-working of some thoughts that arose then and now.
We are a small arts and cultural collective, or as we prefer to say, connective. Over the years, we have developed a wide range of projects together. We have what might be regarded as interminable meetings. In these, we talk about what we want to do. We talk about how it fits with other things we want to do, we talk about themes and abstractions and concrete details and ideology and ethics and society and politics and technology and ecology and punk rock and tools and desires and intuition and cogitation and more details and less details, until we iterate to an idea, a collection of objects, an environments, some interactions, some aesthetics, that make sense to us and we then start planning to build for an exhibition.
We have worked in many patterns. It was not until we had a particularly large project in the offing that we consciously took on people to do certain jobs. Working with some designers, we found that they would talk about some ideas with us, then go off and come back with an idea, and then go about explaining and arguing to us why that was the best idea. I sort of felt like we were being sold something. It was through this and some similar processes, that we realised one important aspect that made our best projects work. As we sat around, drinking too much coffee and eating pastries, waving our hands and scribbling sketches, the best ideas were the ones where we no longer knew who “owned” them. They had been thrown backwards and forwards a few times, they had been added to, trimmed, polished, bent, augmented and summarised until something emerged that “worked” and that we all felt that we all owned. There is no individual ownership of the idea. This seems to run contrary to many creative practices, where artists, designers and others take special care to allocate effort, creativity and other intellectual property (IP) to people based on who had how much of the idea. I suppose it is always a danger that someone will take all the credit, usually the biggest ego in the room. Which is why we credit it all to Time’s Up, but have a (sometimes rather long) list of all the people who contributed. I suppose it is also good not to have a bunch of big egos.
Once an idea begins to gel, we deal with the next stage of development, the process of finding out how it will actually get done. At the end of a development process we have a constellation of elements, where the complete context makes some sort of sense. But how to build them? Here we use ownership explicitly, not about who had the idea, but who wants to take it forward. This is not a skill based approach. It is about the enthusiasm and the depth of desire for that element. While some parts of the process and project will end up being rather drab and it is a matter of waiting until someone (perhaps reluctantly) claims ownership of it, all elements get an owner. And this is ownership in the sense of the German Constitution. Eigentum verpflichtet. Ownership is a commitment and obligation. In the sense that owning land means that one is obliged to care for the land and the context within which it exists, the ownership of elements that we take on is one of making them happen, making them fit, making them work. We have a deep trust that as many as possible of the ideas that make sense will be integrated into what comes out. Building things together means that the brainstorming does not stop; it is not the case that we hide away in separate studios in order to create the objects. The process of building is very open, but it does come down to an enthusiastic responsible ownership in the building process, that then comes together in a complete work at the end.
So one might say that this very generative situation uses two very different approaches to ownership. And two that run perhaps contrary to many of the ways that ownership is used today. We all know that many ideas emerge in parallel at the same time. In academia this can lead to all sorts of precedence races, most famously with Leibniz and Newton or with Darwin and Wallace. Most of us deal with this by giving credit for similar and related work. Recently we were contacted to let us know that someone had built a version of SPIN with the implication that somehow they had stolen our idea. We have been told that we could and should have some IP on SPIN. We know that we created this idea ourselves, based upon some of these interminable coffee-fuelled discussions. After the fact we became aware of a similar device built and patented in the UK, as well as a version of the idea described in a children’s sci fi novel about a decade earlier. We have no need or desire, nor perhaps even any right, to claim IP about this device. We also have no real desire to carry on the development. When someone makes a commercially successful version of it, sure, it would be nice to get a thank you card and a cheque. But we will also be happy to know that some startup are marketing VisuBalls (or whatever) around the world that took our idea further. Christian Siefkes writes of the distinction between exchange value and use value: we do not want to use SPIN (and cannot without rebuilding it) and we feel it would be wrong to demand some kind of exchange value for someone else to pick up the torch and keep developing it.
We would not attempt to claim that this is the way that the world should work. IP has a role to play, in many ways. But we would claim that it is a way that part of the world can and should work. At least our bit.
This reflection is part of Curiouser and Curiouser, cried Alice: Rebuilding Janus from Cassandra and Pollyanna (CCA) a artbased research project from the Institute for Design Investigations at the University of Applied Arts Vienna und Time’s Up. It is supported by the Programme for Arts-based Research (PEEK) from Austrian Science Fund (FWF): AR561.