Draft CP Interview with Ela Petruk for Free/Slow University Warsaw Publication
AGATA PYZIK: Could you explain the beginnings of Critical Practice and your modes of operating?
NEIL CUMMINGS: Critical Practice formed around this idea of exploring, if some of the developments on software, particularly free open source software, may be mapped onto other areas of culture production. Some of the Universities, like Chelsea College of Design, part of the University of Arts in London, students, researchers, academics, artists and members of staff thought about organizing a series of events around this issue: whether technologies or software could map onto other culture production.
What we thought was an open conference which we called an Open Congress, of multiple strands, people talking about education, government and creativity. So these are three strands to be developed. The event was successful and people who organized the event were so energized by it, that we decided to continue working together.
AP: When it took place?
NC: 2005. So people started working together as Critical Practice, and we have some of the members here.
Cinzia CREMONA: The interesting point of coming from the open source is that people who started developing software also developed new ways of getting developed, which has political ways. Because they didn’t use structures that already existed, there were no organization structure, where there is a president, who makes decisions, where there are money. They allow the structure to emerge. So they made a contribution to the ways of getting together. Some of it was written, there had been theory about it, but also, as these organizations developed, other ways of informal ways of getting together developed. Some people collected these experiences under the umbrella of open organization, so organizations started to emerge form the inside, where the structures are not established, as if it were a council or company. Part of the point of the Critical Practice is that the way we organize ourselves takes the experience and knowledge, is developed under such open organization, as much as the projects we realize. So Barcamp as a way of getting together is a part of our practice.
NC: There are two principle reasons: one is that we realized that all art is organized, but mostly we tend to ignore it’s organized and then reproduced in terrible organization structures. Secondly, from page of the Open Organization Guideline, it says, as soon as two people come together, issues of governance arise. So if we don’t attend how we govern one another, we will fall back to this bad individual patterns.
MARSHA BRADFIELD: One of the most important principles for us is to aspire to an ideal of transparency. That takes the form of making our proceedings available on the Wiki. So we try to publish all our projects, agendas etc. Interview that we’re doing will also hopefully appear there.
NC: Quite early on we realized that the way the source remains open is the license itself outside the copyright: free or creative commons licenses, the general public license, which is now mushrooming in other areas. So we’ve made a commitment that knowledge we will produce will be licensed in these terms. That if we take public money, we guarantee, that the knowledge remains public and that we will not use restrictive licenses.
CC: All these ideas are in the Wiki. But because the priority of the Wiki is that it is accessible, so anybody can change the content of the Wiki. If any member of Critical Practice, more or less committed, wants to change it, they can. People contribute mostly in two ways: mostly by getting together physically, but also by contributing, which can be their ways of activity and through the mailing list. Some discussion are on the list. And there are people who read the mails and then become active.
And also, the Wiki has the budget. The other way we consider it transparent is that we endow our responses.
NC: Whenever we manage to attract the sources, like money, we state how much do we have, and structure the budget, and the budget is online, so everyone could see, and it’s open and accessible and editable to every participant.
MB: This exemplifies one kind of the public space we are interested in. we are also interested in various cultural distinctions around public space, which is part of what brought us to Poland, issues of publicness.
NC: I think it is one of the things which ties still functions inside the universities because they capitalize knowledge and intend to make knowledge a private property. So what we’re doing is to test whether it is appropriate or isn’t appropriate and when it should not pertain. And certainly in public university it shouldn’t pertain.
CC: Because CP is an open organization, the staff shifts all the time. And so some of the people who created it are nit there anymore, and some of us arriver later. The structure is accessible. For example, I’m not a part of Chelsea University in any way. This information should be made public. It’s Critical Practice, it’s a research by practice. CP has an openness that is in a way connected with the institution, but also functions in a very different way.
NC: on the website it is written that the institution hosts us, but we are not necessarily contained by them.
KUBA SZREDER: if they pay you a research cluster, how is the property issue related to the different kind of knowledge, which is generated by CP?
We make it clear, that if it’s public money, we will make all the knowledge thus produced accessible.
AP: Who is joining Critical Practice apart from artists, researchers etc?
MB: lately a financial journalist joined us and he’s interested in CP interest in various kinds of economies. So we are excited in his knowledge, specifically in monetary markets, how that may operate in various capacities, how money floats around, how certain ideas go into circulation.
NC: Currently the most organizers are ph.d. students, staff members, researchers, other students at Chelsea.
CC: I come from other background, having a practice in mental health. 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 art organizations.
MICHAELA ROSS: I come from teaching background, I’m working in museum and galleries. I’m interested how CP, with their various modes of operating, functions as hosted by an institution.
CC: We have a set of principles we aspire to, we’re not bind by any manifesto. But we often find that we understand them differently, or are fond of different aspects of that. And so the collaboration pulls in different directions and has an interesting way of settling on certain combination of ideas that come. Just because we wanted to focus on our experiences here, we are not always very good, when we come to actually materialize our projects and transfer all the contradictions to the project. And 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 it’s maybe easier to express dissent at the moment when it becomes public, in public domain.
AP: Could you explain, why you are experimenting with the Barcamps and tell about the previous ones?
NC: Given our interest in various knowledge production, sharing it and watching how it is owned and embodied, we can experiment with its form. You have usually conferences with famous people invited, so we wondered, how we could developed something different than that, collaboratively generate discussion, dissent, agreement, contradictions, provocations.
MB: So we create platform model, where people can share their position and then that becomes further discussed by the group.
NC: We also developed new forms, one of it is called “Market of ideas” where instead of this famous speakers – passive audience we invited the speakers to distribute around the conference tables, which we called “stalls”, and the audience was not passively sat, but moved around. So we used this “market” or “bazaar” structure, and allowed audience to be the most active and transactual in the exchange. They could go to someone and take knowledge and trade or transact it somewhere else, and it was an extremely lively and productive experience.
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 ours 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 still performative, they watch people in discussion.
KS: No, it’s quite similar.
NC: But there’s one sitting at the table, when the multitude is around it.
AP: While yours it’s many multitudes, not one-to-one situations.
KS: I think the idea of Hannah Hultze of MA was to control the content, it’s curated. She still holds this idea of authorship related to this. That market is an event somehow with all those different people participating and I think it’s an important difference.
NC: So ours is the lively and discussive event, where the audience is the most animated and productive. So in a way it’s an inversion of a congress or conference.
CC: But also what we generalize as “the audience” would also be made up of people, who have knowledge to bring. So that the group of people who decided to attend a different stall, they will not only take from the knowledge of the expert, but also give as much as they can. So each stall was set up and knowledge was produced in action, by participating in that particular activity and environment. So I think they are models of distribution, but also models of production together.
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 our approaches in understanding what critical practice is. There are many propositions that are put on the table and may not happen among us. But when we go somewhere as Critical Practice, we usually present a united front. All our contradictions may merge in agreement. And what I felt during the barcamp in people from Warsaw is that you are very good in expressing contradictions in public.
AP: Maybe people in Poland crave any form of expression of their frustration, cause they are convinced their participation in democracy is not at all effective?
KS: If you take Hobbes’ Leviathan, which is at the roots of the social sphere in UK. That there is a social contract between all of us, that we agreed to give the sovereign the power to protect us, which is also the idea: don’t demand much from somebody else, that you are ready to give up, in terms of your rights. Like, if I demand more taxation, I will be taxed more etc. And maybe in Poland it is still valid in our cultural roots, the idea of nobles democracy, and the liberum veto, that everybody is an individual ready to say what he thinks and it is the most important. 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 especially, because this expressed itself in another way. 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 key words. When we did it for the first time, even people, who didn’t want to present a paper, they said two key words. So people conformed, we suggested some rules and they conformed. In Warsaw people refused to say two key words. 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 concept, 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 leave the room and disappear in the background. But here people were saying no with a really form voice. They came to the table. To become invisible you wouldn’t do that in London. So to disappear and to be passive in London would be easier to say two key words.
MR: Does it have something to do with the space?
KS: Here people are not used to talk al lot in public.
MB: One thing that raises for me is that issue, that there is not really a sense of public space in Poland, which I have to confess I had really hard time wrapping my head around. Even if in UK there is this sense of if not inhabiting public space, there’s certain concept of public space as something private, operating in somehow capacity. And when I was asking about it people here, they usually say, we don’t have it here. I don’t understand, why places like parks, that are all over here, are not understood as public.
AP: So either people have a different sense of what is public/private here, or they do not have the sense of it at all. I want to point at the passivity that Kuba mentioned. Do you think Polish society is passive?
KS: No, the point is that you have a quite strong division public/private. In 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 background, like this American guy at the Barcamp.
NC: Maybe it’s not necessarily a distinction, but for me the Barcamp went well. The first ones, we realized we are not very good in managing money, and also other volunteer institutions were not good at it. we felt embarrassment of how to use and distribute money. The idea of Barcamp is to set a particular problem, and everyone in the camp addresses this problem. It’s quite functional in that aspect. So we set ourselves the task of producing guidelines, of how to manage our budget. So everyone at the barcamp made a presentation related to the budget management, and many different aspects. And for me that as one of the most productive barcamps, the theme was quite specific and people had time to prepare. So they could sign up, you knew who was coming and what kind of presentation the would deliver. So it’s important to be ready to be prepared, even if your presentation is short.
Sometimes they can be very good, but equally often they may be sporadic and off the wall. I’m not drawing a distinction between Poland and UK, I’m just thinking generally about the barcamps that we’ve run that worked well for me.
AP: Could you point at the issues, that were more willingly or reluctantly discussed during the barcamps?
NC: We all know that those social discussions are sometimes really interesting, but there’s no way of feeding them back in to the event. But with barcamp I think that there is live and fed back into the process of the camp.
MR: but I don’t think it’s about preparation, it’s about the understanding what your role in the barcamp is, what’s bringing you to step out and involve in certain kind of discussion, hierarchy of discussion, it is a place to be heard. I find these digressions quite interesting, it’s about the attitude, about recognizing a willingness to participate in a democratic way.
MB: we are aspiring to create a set of conditions how some kind of production can take place, and barcamp is an appropriate form to make people sensitive how production of knowledge is organized. You sit at a coffee table and think how it is operating as a space.
KS: With barcamp there is always this problem how to fit it to the changing needs. It was taken from this hackers culture, where it has quite specific aim, a technological problem that people can solve together in a network. And here it’s not so much about conclusion, like writing a code together, so it operates differently, towards less hierarchized. 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 preparations. To make a conference you need 6 months or a year, and a barcamp you can make tomorrow, if you expect people will come.
NC: We use this term ‘productive’ a lot but it’s different from the production that is then owned. It’s not about walking away with the knowledge. The knowledge is produced and the event is produced, but every single person take what they want from it. so it’s more like distribution, than 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 the knowledge doesn’t come from the expert, that It emerges through interaction. Or someone comes to the lecture with as much knowledge in himself.
KS: It comes from 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 polish intelligentsia, you have this idea of a person more charismatic who is to teach others.
CC: Do you think that people are prepared to admit that they fear to express they opinions in public sphere? Is that a question you can ask outside you immediate circle?
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 the good old Bourdieu’s distinction: you prefer to listen to an expert, who knows it better and subdue to this power.
KS: And an expert must be someone recognized as a person who you talk to. It provides all those gratifications, like prestige that comes, when you put this someone on the list. In an anonymous group it’s much less possible.
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 power abuse in Poland created certain amount of seriousness and rigidness in the Poles. One has to learn again how to take pleasure out of something.
CC: To repeat this idea that we learn each other from the outside – one of the presentations that had the strongest reactions were those that had the idea of challenge, putting in pleasure, putting in playing, aspects, that are maybe considered more superficial, if you struggle was organized around some oppressive political system. Pleasure and 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 in here and in the UK, and you’ll see the difference. In UK you won’t see any people dancing on tables.
AP: In UK bars and pubs are open until 11pm, which is unthinkable here.
CC: But I’m talking about the behavior in public. I’ve been to parties here so I know you know how to have fun, I appreciate that, but there is no such thing on the streets. When it comes to organizing ways of getting together, coming from the bottom to self organize, public, that forms itself. I’m not 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: That the bars are being opened late, in the situation you described – is that considered a politicized experience?
AP: Not really. When you go a barcamp, you have certain expectations, when you go to have fun late at night, there are no proper rules, or they are less explicit.