Draft CP Interview with Agata Pyzik for Free/Slow University Warsaw Publication

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Sent to Agata and Kuba on Monday, December 14th.

In October of 2009, Critical Practice* jointly facilitated a public "unconference" with Warsaw Slow Free University. This "unconference" (called a Barcamp) took place at Nowy Wspanialy Świat (former Nowy Świat cafe), ul. Nowy Świat 63 Warsaw, and examined the "The Public Body" as its main theme. Some of the questions shaping this one-day event included: What kinds of subjects/bodies/abilities are authorized to enact the public and how? What infrastructures and ideologies are necessary to facilitate a public body? And how can the public body be inhabited and activated?

Reflecting on this Barcamp, the following text is based on a conversation between members of Critical Practice and Agata Pyzik from the Bęc Zmiana Foundation. This discussion considers various issues, such as Critical Practice's methods of self-organization and the Barcamp as a discursive platform for assembling people with diverse points of view. Also discussed are cultural distinctions between "public" and "private" and how these categories promote varied ways of occupying space in Poland and the UK.

AGATA PYZIK: Could you explain the beginnings of Critical Practice and your modes of operating?


NEIL CUMMINGS: Critical Practice formed because we were interested in exploring some recent developments emerging around software, particularly free, libre and open source software. Well, we were not so much interested in the software itself, as what it enabled us to do, to think through, and think about. Some undergraduate students, researchers, academics, artists and members of staff at Chelsea College of Art and Design (part of the University of Arts in London) proposed a series of events around these emerging issues: and tried to see whether these technologies, ideas and processes and could map onto art, and other areas of cultural production.

We proposed a conference with Tate in London, which eventually developed - after 18 months work - into Open Congress <http://opencongress.omweb.org>. It was an enormous and complex event with multiple and simultaneous strands, some self-organized, focused on Governance, Creativity and Knowledge. The event was super-successful, and all of us who participated were so energized by it, that we decided to continue working together.


AP: When did it take place?


NC: In 2005. Subsequently we started working together as Critical Practice, and we have some of the members here.


Cinzia CREMONA: One of the interesting things about open source software, is that the people who started developing the software also developed new ways of working together, new ways of associating, which has a political value. Because they didn’t necessarily need hierarchical structures, where there is a president, who makes decisions, a treasurer to administer the money, etc, they allowed an organizational structure to emerge that mirrored the production of the software. Some people collected together these new organizational experiences under the umbrella of open-organizations.org. They published some simple functional guidelines. Typically these organizations started to emerge form the inside, where management structures were not already established, into horizontal, mobile and self organized elements. Part of what we do as Critical Practice, is to try and practice with the experience and knowledge developed by such open organizations, and within the guidelines, as much as possible.


NC: For us, this is for two principle reasons: one is that we realized (after Adorno) that all art is organized, and mostly as artists we tend to ignore that we are organized, and then reproduce terrible organizational structures. Secondly, the Open Organization Guidelines open-organizations.org say that as soon as two people come together issues of governance arise. So if we don’t attend to how we associate with one another, we will also revert to these bad organizations and lazy practices.


MARSHA BRADFIELD: Transparency is an important principle for us, an ideal we aspire to. Hence we make all of our proceedings available on the Critical Practice wiki. Or at least we try to publish all our meetings, agendas, minutes, projects, budgets and texts there. Hopefully this interview can appear there too.


NC: Quite early on we realized that to remain true to the spirit of Free, Libre and Open Source software development, that we would lave to license ourselves outside of copyright: using free, copyleft or Creative Commons licenses. The genius of open source software is the General Public license, the GPL. It enables instances of creativity to be shared, modified and redistributed by others. So we’ve made a commitment, that the knowledge we produce will be licensed under these terms. If we are in receipt of public money, we guarantee that the knowledge remains public, to enrich the common wealth; we will not use restrictive licenses.


CC: All these ideas, and our Aims and Objectives are on our Wiki. And the Wiki is accessible, anybody can change the content of the Wiki. If any member of Critical Practice, more or less committed, wants to change our Aims, or Objectives they can. Also, our budget can be seen and edited on the Wiki. People contribute to Critical Practice mostly in two ways: firstly by getting together physically for meetings and events, and secondly by contributing to the wiki, or through the mailing list. Some discussions happen on the list. And there are people who read the e-mails and then become active.


NC: Whenever we manage to attract resources, like money, we post how much we have on the wiki, and how we intend to structure the budget. The budget is online, so everyone can see it, our funders, the people we need to pay, everyone. It’s open, accessible and editable by every participant.


MB: Our wiki, and the attitudes it encourages, exemplifies the kind of public space that we're interested in. It's a space that needs to be occupied and maintained. Members exercise the wiki by posting regularly and editing the collectively written texts gathered there. Critical Practice is concerned with various cultural distinctions around space--both online and off. Addressing the difference between public and private space is part of what brought us to Poland. Yes, we're interested in what might be termed "publicness" and how it's performed through daily practice and shaped by various infrastructures.


NC: I think this is one of the themes which links Critical Practice, the recent Barcamp and the Free Slow University of Warsaw. There is a general tendency for Universities to adopt a 'corporate' model of knowledge production, because they capitalize knowledge through Intellectual Property (IP) regimes and make knowledge a private property. So one of the things that Critical Practice has been testing, is whether this is appropriate or not. And certainly in public university it's not.


CC: Because CP is an open organization, the participants are shifting all the time. And so some of the people who began with Open Congress are no longer here anymore, and some of us arrived later. The structure is flexible and scalable. For example, I’m not a part of Chelsea College of Art and Design in any way. This information should be made public. It’s Critical Practice, it’s a research by practice. CP has an openness. It is connected with and supported by the University, but also functions in a very different way.


NC: On our wiki we state that the University hosts us, but we are not necessarily contained by them.


KUBA SZREDER: If the University funds you as a research cluster, how is the (IP) property issue related to the different kind of knowledge, which is generated by CP?


NC: We make it clear, that if we are supported by public money, we will make all the knowledge produced free, open and accessible.


AP: Who is joining Critical Practice apart from artists, researchers etc?


MB: Lately a financial journalist joined the group and he’s interested in CP's preoccupation with various kinds of economies. And we're excited by his knowledge of final economies in particular--his understanding of monetary markets, how money floats around and how certain notions of wealth are circulated along with this capital.


NC: Although currently most participants are Ph.D. students, staff members, researchers, other students at Chelsea.


CC: I come from another background, having a practice in mental health provision. Even if we are all connected to art discourse, or/and practice, we come from a very different backgrounds, which is not so common in many art organizations.

MICHAELA ROSS: I come from a teaching background, I’m working in education in museum and galleries. I’m interested in how CP, with our various modes of operating, can function inside different institutions.


CC: We have a set of principles, our Aims and Objectives that we aspire to. We’re not bound by any manifesto. But we often find that we understand our aspirations differently. And so the collaboration pulls in different directions and has an interesting way of settling on certain combination of ideas that emerge from these differences. This is not always very 'efficient', but when we actually materialize our projects and transfer all the contradictions to the project it can be super-productive. During the Barcamp here, people were very good in arguing, expressing the contradictions, even between people who worked together. And I saw that here culturally, maybe it is easier to express dissent at the moment when something becomes public, in a public domain.


AP: Could you explain, why you are experimenting with the Barcamps and tell about the previous ones?


NC: Barcamps emerged from our research, and interest, in various forms of knowledge production; who produces what, how is it distributed, how is it owned or embodied. Generally at academic events, you have a conference format where famous people are invited to speak at, a largely passive audience. Its a broadcast model. So we wondered how to develop different forms of assembly, forms of assembly that facilitate the engagement of the audience, or that collaboratively generate discussion, knowledge and dissent, agreement, contradictions, provocations.

CC: BarCamps are an international network of user generated un-conferences: open, participatory, and often thrilling workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants.

MB: They work like this: presentations are proposed in advance, usually through an on-line sign-up table, or on on-the-day by attendees. We then try, live and on-site to build themed 'sessions' or groups of related presentations using white boards of flip charts. All attendees are encouraged to present and share their expertise. Usually about ten-minute presentations, with ten-minutes for questions and discussion. We try and keep lots of notes. There's usually a live scribe, and everyone is encouraged to share information and experiences of the event, both live and after the fact, via blogging, photo sharing, social bookmarking, wiki-ing, twitter, and so on.

So we have created a series of 'platforms'. Yes, a barcamp is a platform where people can share their knowledge and the ideas they place into circulation can be further developed by the group.


NC: We have also developed new forms, one of it is called “Market of ideas” where instead of this famous speakers – passive audience model, we invited the 'speaker's to be distributed around the conference space at tables, which we called “stalls”. The audience did not passively sit, but moved around, and listened to who they wanted to. So this “market” or “bazaar” structure enabled the audience to be the most active and transactual. They could go to someone and listen 'take' some knowledge and then trade or transact it somewhere else. The Market was an extremely lively and productive experience. A noisy, distributed, peer-to-peer exchange replaced the older, broadcast, conference model.


AP: It’s like the Black Market of Knowledge and Non-knowledge, run by Mobile Academy, they had done one in Poland around 2006. Are you familiar with it?


NC: Yes, but I think our market is better (laughs), because actually the audience is the most productive in the Market of Ideas, whereas what I know about Mobile Academy, it’s mostly performative, you watch people in discussion.


KS: No, it’s quite similar.


NC: But there’s a one-to-one exchange at the table, while the 'audience' is hanging around, waiting their turn.


AP: While yours has many multitudes, not one-to-one situations.


NC: Exactly!


KS: I think the idea of Hannah Hultze of MA was to control the content, it’s curated. She still holds an idea of authorship. That Market of Ideas is somehow different, with all those people participating. I think it’s an important difference.


NC: Ours is a really lively and discursive event, where the audience is the most animated and productive. As we know, there is more knowledge in the audience than in the famous' invited speaker, so in a way the Market tries to unleash the potential of the 'audience'. It is the very opposite of a conference.


CC: We tend to generalize “the audience”, but they are people who have expert knowledge to contribute. So that the group of people who attend a 'market stall' not only 'take' the knowledge of the expert, but also give as much as they can. So at each stall knowledge was produced in action, by participating in that particular activity and environment. So I think the market is a model of distribution, but also of creative co-production.


What comes up and what doesn’t come up during this discussions is equally important. We think about the models of the distribution of knowledge and the production of knowledge. The fact that we are coming from London to organize a Barcamp in Warsaw might produce a different kind of knowledge. One is the explicit knowledge, which are the themes we discuss. But there will be also the implicit knowledge which is the things that happen which you do not expect to happen. This happens when a group of people from two countries: it is a kind of mirror effect: we reflect back to each other, what we’re prepared to talk about and what we’re not prepared to talk about, and kinds of behavior we tend to engage with and the ones we don’t tend to engage with.


AP: So what were the surprises of the Warsaw Barcamp, what kinds of behaviors emerged, did you expect anything?


CC: It’s not about expecting anything, but what we’ve noticed, is even the ways of collaborating, preparing of an event, shows the differences in approaches. There were many propositions that were put on the table, and many did not happen. But when we go somewhere as Critical Practice, we usually present a united front. All our contradictions merge into a tacit agreement. And what I felt during the Barcamp, is that people from Warsaw are very good in expressing contradictions in public.


AP: Maybe people in Poland crave any form of expression for their frustrations, I think because they are convinced their participation in democracy is not effective.


KS: If you take Hobbes’ Leviathan, which is at the roots of the social sphere in UK, there is the idea of a social contract between all of us. That we agree to give the sovereign power, to protect us. Which is something like don’t demand from somebody else, that which you are not prepared to give-up yourself, in terms of your rights. Like, if I demand more taxation, I will be taxed more etc. And maybe in Poland it is still true that our cultural roots, is that of a 'nobles democracy', and the liberum veto, that everybody is an individual ready to say what he thinks. But in Poland usually people are ashamed of expressing their opinions in public, so that is actually surprising.


CC: It’s not about expressing their opinion, it’s about disagreeing! Because this expressed itself in another way. A Barcamp is a type of a self-organized conference. You don’t want to force people to contribute, so at the beginning everybody is invited to say their name and two keywords. When we did it for the first time at PubliCamp in London, even people, who didn’t want to contribute said two keywords. So people conformed, when we suggested some rules, they conformed. In Warsaw people refused to say two keywords. I was surprised by that. It’s about saying "No" in public, disagreeing with the rules.


KS: it’s rather about being ashamed of showing anything, even your interests in public. It was more about passivity of people, they didn’t want to participate, be active


CC: But in England the way to refuse participation would be to just sit at the back of the room and disappear. But here people were saying "No" with a really strong voice. They came to the table, and then refused.


MR: Does it have something to do with the space?


KS: Here people are not used to talking in public.


MB: Yes, it seems there's a different sense of public space in Poland than, say, in the UK. Even if people in the UK aren't always sure how to behave in this space, there’s still a strong, if vague, sense of "publicness" there. I think many people feel entitled to being in public and to constituting a public or publics. But when I asked people in Warsaw about what public space entails in a Polish context, they would usually say, "We don’t have public space here." I still don’t really understand this. Why aren't places like parks, the parks in Warsaw for example, not understood as public?


AP: So either people have a different sense of what is public and private here, or they do not have the sense of it at all. I want to return to the passivity that Kuba mentioned. Do you think Polish society is passive?


KS: No, the point is that you have a quite strong division of public and private. In the Barcamp, there were people who were at ease, because they are my – the organizer – friends, so they felt more like at home. Or they come from other backgrounds, like that American girl. People were more relaxed and it enabled them to be more improvisational, spontaneous even.


NC: Maybe it’s not necessarily a distinction, but...... The first Barcamp we organised in London was about how to manage money and budgets. We realized we are not very good at managing money, but also other arts, NGO's and volunteer organizations were not good at it either. We feel almost embarrassed by spending and distributing money. The idea of first Barcamp was to set a particular problem as a theme, and everyone in the camp addresses this problem. Barcamps are quite functional in that respect. So we set ourselves the task, that through the Barcamp we would produce guidelines on how to manage a budget for an open organization. So everyone at the barcamp made a presentation more-or-less related to budget management. And for me, this was one of the most productive barcamps, the theme was quite specific and people had time to prepare. It’s important to be really well prepared, even if your presentation is short.

Sometimes improvisation and spontanaeity can be good, but equally they can produce a mess. I’m not drawing a distinction between Poland and UK, I’m just thinking generally about the Barcamps that we’ve organized, and that worked well for me.


AP: Could you point at the issues, that were more willingly or reluctantly discussed during the barcamps?


MR: I don’t think it’s about preparation, it’s about the understanding what your role in the barcamp is. What’s makes you want to contribute, contribute to certain kinds of discussion, or hierarchies of discussion. I find these digressions quite interesting, it’s about the attitude, about recognizing a willingness to participate in a democratic way.


MB: CP aspires to create conditions for a new kind of knowledge production, and Barcamps are interesting models in this regard. This is because Barcamps are performative, by which I mean the conditions they create shape the knowledge or knowledges they produce. In contrast to more formal pedagogic models, such as a lecture where an expert disseminates his knowledge through one-way content delivery as he talks at a group, Barcamps, with their more intimate atmosphere, promote a sustained conversation or conversations among all those in attendance. As such, and to echo an earlier point, they're a good context for testing new ideas and forming opinions, as they tend to assemble diverse points of view--or at least that's when I think they work best.


KS: With a Barcamp there is always this problem of how to adapt to changing needs. It evolved from this hacker culture where it has a quite specific aim; to solve a technological problem collaboratively, in a network. And here in Poland it was not so much about having an outcome, like writing code together, so it operates differently. For me as a curator it’s also important that it’s not so controlled, you can surprise yourself. And the responsibility is distributed, you don’t need so much preparation. To make a conference you need 6 months or a year, and a Barcamp you can make tomorrow, if you know people will come.


NC: We use this term ‘productive’ a lot but it’s very different from the production that is then owned. It’s not about walking away with the knowledge, like the recording of the 'famous' lecture as an MP3. With a Barcamp the knowledge is produced as the event is produced. And every single person contributes and takes from it what they want. It’s as much about peer-distribution as production.


CC: I have an impression that because of this history of Warsaw and the different perception of the public space we were describing, I don’t think that people are open to this kind of conversation, of acknowledging, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from the invited expert. Knowledge emerges in practice, through interaction.


KS: It comes from Poland being a Catholic culture. If you think about the protestant way of discussing the Bible, in Catholicism you still have a priest and hierarchy. And within the Polish intelligentsia, you have this image of the charismatic person able to teach others.


CC: Do you think that people are prepared to admit that they fear to express their opinions in a public sphere? Is that a question you can ask outside your immediate circle of friends?


KS: If you have 80 percent of people going to church every Sunday, meeting the priest who tells them what to do, it creates certain patterns.


AP: One of the things is that people in Poland didn’t learn how to use their freedoms gained after 1989. But the other thing is Bourdieu’s Distinction: you prefer to listen to an expert, who knows better, and submit to his, or her power.


KS: And an expert must be someone recognized as a person who you listen to. It provides all those gratifications, like prestige that comes when you put a famous person on the list of invited speakers.


CC: Do you think that this incapacity of using one’s liberties has something to do with the incapacity to play in public?


AP: I think that the years of the abuse of power in Poland created a certain amount of seriousness and rigidness in the Poles. One has to learn again how to take pleasure in something.


CC: Just to repeat this idea, that we learn from the outside – the presentations that had the strongest reactions were those that challenged, played, played with pleasure, that introduced themes often considered superficial. If you struggle against some oppressive political system, pleasure and the fun in getting together is a really important tool.


KS: But referring to the discussion during the Barcamp, I disagree that there’s no fun on the Left. With playing, go to any bar here in Poland, or in the UK and you’ll see the difference. In UK you won’t see any people dancing on tables.


NC: You won't see me dancing on the tables!


AP: In UK bars and pubs are only open until 11pm! That is unthinkable here!


CC: But I’m talking about behavior in public. I’ve been to parties here in Warsaw, so I know you know how to have fun! I appreciate that, but there is no such thing in Public, on the streets. When it comes to organizing ways of getting together, self- organizing publics, I’m sure that there’s a disconnect between a serious political discourse and then the way people get together for fun. So maybe it’s underestimated here, how people are getting together in public?


AP: Maybe if the frame is considered serious: like “exchange of ideas, knowledge” – the do not associate it with fun.


MB: Going back to Kuba's point about the pubs and bars being open late and how this differs from pub culture in the UK, is enjoying oneself in bars in Poland considered a political gesture? Is it a way of opposing authoritarian culture?


AP: Not really. When you go to have fun late at night, there are no proper rules.

  • Critical Practice is a cluster of artists, researchers, academics and others supported by Chelsea College of Art & Design, London.

The group recognizes dramatic transformations in creative practice, transformations that are instigated by, and a reflection of, wider social, political, technological and financial changes. One of the most obvious effects of these changes is that as artists, curators, designers and theorists, our practices, or their interpretation, or how they are theorized, historicized or organized, are no longer separate concerns, or indeed the prerogative of different disciplines. Currently, Critical Practice is concerned by the threat of the instrumentalization of the artistic field through the internalisation of corporate values, methods and models. This can be seen everywhere, in funding agencies, at art schools and academies and in museums and galleries. Therefore, the group seeks to avoid the passive reproduction of art, and uncritical cultural production by exploring new models for creative practice. Critical Practice looks to engage these models in appropriate public forums, both nationally and internationally. Critical Practice collaborates on exhibitions, seminars and conferences, films, concerts and other event programmes. The group also works with archives and collections, publications, broadcasts and other distributive media and funders.

For more information, please visit the Critical Practice wiki at http://criticalpracticechelsea.org.


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