Knowledge Commons #2

Back to Bournemouth and Poole where alongside Kevin Carter’s Landscape-Portait, the artist Simon Yuill organised walks around Townsend, Turbary Common and Kinson Common as part of the Digital Transformations project commissioned by SCAN. There is a wealth of information about these walks and more on Simon’s A New Kind of Commons website.

Turbary Common gate on Googlemaps Streetview

Talking about the project with Simon and with Helen Sloan of SCAN I’m reminded of a work by the pioneering British artist Stephen Willats. Since the late 1950s, via Roy Ascott’s seminal and influential early 1960s experiments at Ealing School of Art and his own Control Magazine established in 1963, Stephen Willats has (as the Control website puts it),

situated his artistic practice at the intersection between art and other disciplines, such as cybernetics, systems research, behaviourism, communications theory or computer technology. This practice has constructed and developed a language for conceptual art that is collaborative, interactive and participatory.

One of the works by Stephen Willats which resonates with what Simon is doing is called Pat Purdy and the Glue Sniffers’ Club (1981-2). Like Simon’s A New Kind of Commons, it created a means to explore and document the ways people accessed and creatively used open space in their neighbourhood, in this case an area of waste land known as ‘the lurky place’ that was situated close to a series of tower blocks on the Avondale Estate, in west London.

There is illuminating discussion of Pat Purdy and the Glue Sniffers’ Club in Charlotte Ginsborg’s excellent filmed interview between Stephen Willats and Andrew Wilson, which is available to view free on the Control Magazine website here.

L-R Stephen Willats, Andrew Wilson

Simon Yuill’s focus on the commons around Bournemouth and Poole, the relationships between those commons and the adjacent post-WWII social housing, and the walks he has been organising around Townsend and around Turbary and Kinson Commons echo Willats’s work of 30 years ago on the Avondale Estate. They also provide a reminder that such public spaces are often or usually at risk.

Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territories (1997) writes about his and his collaborators’ experiences when filming around the City of London at the beginning of the 1990s, and discusses the way that city streets can be subject to jurisdictions and directives that supercede or override apparent freedoms and render those notionally public spaces effectively private. Security guards and police prevented Sinclair from filming near the so-called ‘ring of steel’ checkpoints, anticipating more recent and now well documented cases of beat police and Community Support officers inappropriately invoking today’s apparent terrorist threat to harrass and criminalise civilian photographers.

As with other commons elsewhere in the UK, Kinson and Turbary Commons in Bournemouth and Poole are areas of land that somehow survived successive enclosures through the centuries to remain accessible and usable by all. The historical Enclosures were far from merely neutral or titular exercises in changing the ownership of land, but impacted directly and extremely negatively upon the lives of people who had previously been dependent upon the commons for their subsistence. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have written extensively in their inspirational book The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic about how the Enclosures dispossessed enormous numbers of the rural poor. Linebaugh and Rediker suggest that these dispossessed peoples were criminalised to create the forced labour that was necessary for British colonial and naval expansion. In so doing however, a radical and diverse proletariat was created; an Atlantic-wide readership and distribution network for the revolutionary writings of groups such as the Diggers whose ideas about common-wealth and equal rights were then taken up and developed across what Paul Gilroy called the ‘Black Atlantic’. I’m wildly paraphrasing and compressing a very subtle and comprehensive argument that really should be read in full, but Linebaugh and Rediker trace the development of revolutionary Atlantic texts ranging from Pirate Articles to the US Constitution directly back to the work of the Diggers and those who opposed the Enclosures.

Even where some land did remain in common ownership, as here in what is now Bournemouth and Poole, the survival of such freedoms is far from guaranteed. Turbary Common (the name apparently comes from ancient rights to cut turf for fuel) has been at particular risk even in recent years. Parts of Turbary now have ‘triple-SI status’ as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as well as a palimpsest of other jurisdictions, designations and acronyms which overlay this. The Friends of Turbary Common webpage on the Dorset Communigate site lists these as follows:

Whole site [sic.] is Local Nature Reserve ( since 1996) and Public Open Space. The main heathland areas are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (part of same SSSI as Kinson Common), these areas are also designated as Special Protection Areas ( SPA) under the European Birds Directive 1979, Special Areas of Conservation(SAC) under the Habitats Directive of 1992 and Ramsar sites. There is also a small area of Site of Nature Conservation Interest (SNCI).

Speaking to local enthusiast and activist Dot Donsworth as we walked around Turbary on a damp and misty day in March, it was cautionary to hear how precarious the survival of that area of land has been even or especially in recent years, but it was also encouraging to hear that local people had been able to mobilise and campaign to effect change in face of specific threats. Dot, who maintains and publishes accounts of wildlife sighted on Turbary, showed me newspaper clippings from the early 1970s when the Common escaped redevelopment by just one vote.

Screengrab of Turbary Common Walk slideshow at http://www.newcommons.net/walks/westhowe.html

We wandered over to Fernheath, a tiny spur of land that has been divided from the north east corner of the Common proper by Turbary Park Avenue and which remains at risk. Dot pointed out building that had encroached upon the open space in recent years. ‘You have to keep on reminding people that this isn’t just nothing, it’s Fernheath,’ Dot tells me. ‘Otherwise they conveniently forget, and it could completely disappear. This is Fernheath. You have to keep on saying it.’

Simon’s work on the commons of Bournemouth and Poole deliberately echoes and points to obviously recent understandings of the internet as a free public resource. It is not an accident that a lot of the thinking about how people use the internet and about the nature of freedom in the virtual world often specifically invokes the idea of the commons. The Creative Commons license (which allows users to specify how or whether works published online can be re-used by others) is just one example. The Creative Commons wiki describes commons in general as:

resources that are not divided into individual bits of property but rather are jointly held so that anyone may use them without special permission. Think of public streets, parks, waterways, outer space, and creative works in the public domain — all of these things are, in a way, part of the commons.

A decade before Pat Purdy and the Glue Sniffers’ Club, and in the same year that Turbary Common escaped redevelopment by that single vote, Stephen Willats’s groundbreaking 1973 Social Model Construction Project put a networked and interactive ‘portable teletype terminal’ in the streets of Edinburgh to explore and facilitate a new kind of social agency. Building upon code developed by Stuart Pound of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science the project was designed to enable ‘people resident in four areas of [the city] to articulate the way they percieve [sic] and understand conventions that determine peoples relationships to each other.’ (The project is discussed in some depth in a recentish interview between Willats and George Mallen for the Computer Arts Society newsletter here.)

Reproduced in Page Sixty: Bulletin of the Computer Arts Society, Spring 2005

To build the Social Model Construction Project Willats collaborated with computer scientists at ICL in Dalkeith, who used an acoustic coupler to, as Willats puts it, ‘scream the data’ down the wire. This may be one of the first instances, if not the first, of an networked interactive computer terminal being sited in a public space anywhere in the world. Anecdotal sources suggest that it may have been considered sufficiently radical at the time that it resulted in Willats being interviewed by the security services.

It is banal but necessary to note the direction of the flow of information through that 1973 teletype terminal. Social Model Construction Project created a site for a new kind of distributed and creative production rather than simply offering a new means of consumption.

Like the Social Model Construction Project before it, another work of Simon Yuill’s (produced with Chad McCail and others) called spring_alpha (1998-2005) explored ways that members of a defined society might effect change. Like the Social Model Construction Project, it too was built using software that had been developed by other coders and made available free to be adapted, reused and improved, with the further adaptation of this code being the means by which members of the fictional society effected changes. This social and scientific model has been formalised since the days of the Society for Ethical Responsibility in Science by organisations like the Free Software Foundation with their GNU General Public License and an ethos which they explain as follows:

‘Free software’ is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer.’

At time of writing The Free Software Foundation‘s mission to ‘promote computer user freedom’ is relevant to more than simply the production and reuse of non-proprietory software.

Most people in the UK are ‘computer users’ now (79.8% of the UK population were internet users in 2009, according to Neilson), but computer user freedom currently seems to be threatened in the UK by a Digital Economy Bill which has been drafted by the Labour government and rushed through second and third readings in the House of Commons before the dissolution of Parliament that precedes the forthcoming general election. #debill as it is known on Twitter contains controversial measures by which copyright holders can force ISPs to produce lists of copyright infringements on demand, and so-called ‘three-strike’ measures which allow ministers or other ‘bodies corporate with the capacity to make their own rules and establish their own procedures’ (Digital Economy Bill [HL] section 142D(4)(a)) to disconnect the internet access of those deemed by any copyright holder to be persistant downloaders (‘pirates’ is still the term most-often used, even by the BBC in this report) without trial.

The contradictory messages coming from Government have been quite schizophrenic. Contrast what Wired UK in a correction (they themselves seem to have been a bit confused) call ‘the three-strikes stuff’ in clauses 4-16 of #debill with Gordon Brown in his 22 March 2010 ‘Speech on Building Britain’s Digital Future’ where he describes broadband as ‘the electricity of the digital age. And I believe,’ he continued, ‘it must be for all – not just for some.’

Like more than 20,000 others I wrote to my MP to point out amongst other things that the British Phonographic Institute and other ‘creative industries’ lobbyists don’t speak for me as a copyright holder who is dependent upon my creative work for my income and increasingly, like everyone else, upon the web for my audiences. I also said that I didn’t think copyright and human rights should be mutually exclusive. I wasn’t hopeful that my letter would actually be read, but just wanted to swell the numbers speaking out. Like Dot Donsworth down in Bournemouth and Poole and the fight to preserve Turbary Common and now what is left of Fernheath, sometimes you simply ‘have to keep saying it.’ I got a useless form letter back from my MP, of course, confirming that she would be supporting the bill.

Debate, so-called, about #debill has been scant and infuriating. The second reading on Tuesday 6 April was attended by a mere handful of MPs (40 when the chamber was most crowded out of a possible 643) of whom all but one seemed to agree to the Bill’s being made law as part of the pre-election ‘wash-up’, even in spite of numerous serious concerns.

Spurious, little-understood and uncontested statistics were bandied around to illustrate e.g. how much ‘the creative industries’ lose to illegal downloading and how many jobs would be at risk if #debill wasn’t passed. My MP Justine Greening didn’t turn up to second or third readings, choosing to speak instead at the launch of a Conservative election campaign in a neighbouring constituency.

It was clear that most of the few who were there at the second reading had little idea what they were talking about, with ‘the creative industries’ being spoken of as if it were a monolithic bloc and the internet seeming to be understood primarily as the tube down which big entertainment corporations pump stuff for everyone else to consume, which is of course one thing that it can be, rather than what it also predominantly is, like that Ur-teletype terminal in Stephen Willats’s Social Model Construction Project: a new kind of public realm that has correspondingly enabled new kinds of distributed creativity, much of which, again echoing the pioneering work of Stephen Willats and many, many, many others, is ‘collaborative, interactive and participatory.’

A typical second-reading rant saw Peter Wishart of the Scottish National Party taking it upon himself to speak for artists (thanks but no thanks, Peter) and characterising dissenting voices, even those speaking from within the creative industries, as the ‘powerful and influential internet service providers […] and their digital rights friends.’ (Hansard, 6 April 2010: column 882).

The vote on the third reading, ‘Division No.132’, came at around 11pm last night: Ayes 189, Noes 47.

It might have been nice if, like the battle to save Turbary Common back in 1973, civil society and openness had won out by a single vote over misinformation, heavy-handedness and the prospect of the unnecessary criminalisation of internet users by ministers and ‘other bodies corporate’. It is no surprise though, I suppose, when you consider that the 20,000-odd people who protested against #debill by writing to their MPs pales into insignificance beside the numbers who protested in London back in February 2003 against going to war in Iraq (estimates ranging from e.g. 750,000 to 2,000,000) and that didn’t change a thing.

But still, you have to keep saying it. Dot told me that when Turbary Common was at risk again, this time from housebuilding proposals in the 1980s, it was the dog walkers who first came out in protest. I wonder who the equivalent of those dog walkers are who will protest about the Digital Economy Bill now and in the coming months as it becomes law.

To be continued

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Knowledge Commons #2 by Tony White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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