[iDC] Report from the Free Culture Forum in Barcelona

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Nov 6 12:04:11 UTC 2009

The Free Culture Forum in Barcelona: towards a People’s charter for cultural freedom in the digital age

(a report)

I was very privileged to be invited by Simona Conservas of the Spanish EXGAE, one of the key organizers of the Free Culture Forum (together with Wouter Tebbens of the Free Knowledge Institute and other groups such as Networked Politics), to attend and participate in this event, a founding moment for the politisation, or shall we say the coming to political maturity, of a distinct platform for demands and proposals around the right to practice and access free culture.
With free culture I mean the bottom up creation of multiple creative expressions by any member of the population, enabled through the global possibilities for interconnection that have been enabled by the widespread, though still very insufficient, availability of the internet and the tools for cultural production and distribution.
Each subculture normally goes through several stages. First a countercultural stage, in which the new practices emerge, but without much concern for mainstream society and its limitations, and therefore often characterized by transgression of prevalent cultural norms. The filesharing practice for example, where young people share, beyond the limitations that may be attempted by those who claim to own the rights to culture as a property. The next stage is usually constructive, the creation of new institutional forms which sustain these communities, and a typical example would be the creation of the Creative Commons, as enabling the sharing of cultural works in a legal way.
The third step is then inevitably a political maturation and a recognition that the new practice cannot be safeguarded without specifically addressing the limitations with the privileged forces of the old order are attempting to impose, in order to contain or rollback the new subcultural movements, as the latter show the potential to become a new mainstream.
Different components of free culture have achieved the first elements of the third phase already, as we can witness with the flowering of the Pirate Parties, which started in Sweden after the attacks against the free sharing of culture, and are now rapidly disseminating in other European countries. I was also privileged to witness the rapid unfolding of the Open Coalition against the abolishing of network neutrality principles in Europe, concocted by sinister forces in the European parliament.
So the maturation and politisation certainly preceded this meeting, yet, it also brought something new. That new factor is I believe the bringing together of the various components of the movement, in Europe and worldwide, around the creation of common principles that can also be used to demand social charters from public authorities. Present in Barcelona were not just representatives of the filesharing communities, and their political voice the Pirate Party of Sweden, but also people involved in the Creative Commons, open access to cultural and scientific publishing, but also active and legendary hackers, and activists from the U.S. such as the indomitable Jamie Love of KEI, and Eddan Katz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I cannot recall any event that not only united such a broad front of free cultural creatives, especially with the additional aim of creating a common Charter.
So, how well did it go? I must say that it exceeded my expectations, about the ability of any organizers to keep together such a bunch of independent and autonomous individuals, and to facilitate the productive orientation towards a concrete goal, in such a limited time.
It is the all the more remarkable in the sense that free culture is not a single movement, but simply a current concern of different communities that need to collaboratively share, access and produce culture and knowledge for many different reasons and motivations. Beyond the common need and practice, political orientations can widely diverge, not so much ‘between movements’ as even ‘between individuals’ within those movements. For example, one Dutch attendee was convinced that a return to a “normal” market was all that needed, seeing no need to see culture as something that transcends saleable commodities, while another compatriot strenuously objected to any mention of the need for public funding of the arts. Yet another delegate distrusted any demand that would be addressed to the state, seen as the natural enemy of cultural producers … While minoritarian such positions where expressed very strongly, and it would have been easy to go
 towards polarization in the dialogue. Yet, the group didn’t go down that path, but remained focused on the common ground.
Both the legal and ‘hacking’ subgroups produced remarkable documents in a very short time; one group that had a more difficult time was the one I belonged to, around the economics of free cultural production, probably because economic practice is more tightly tied to specific political philosophies and peer production is still an emergent practice that is experimenting with very different models for its sustainability. Nevertheless even that group produced a mindmap and visualization of the different possibilities for the sustainability of free cultural practice.
I would also like to add that the meeting was very hard work, sometimes beyond endurance, and that whenever some in the group wavered, Simona and other facilitators were instrumental in pushing us beyond that point of exhaustion, in order to succeed in the production of that common document.
It is my conviction that this moment will be seen as a foundational moment, and that when people look back at the transformation of their world towards one with greater cultural freedom, the creation of the Free Culture Charter, or whatever name it will receive in the next few days, will be seen as instrumental in the birth of that new political, social and cultural logic. When sharing and cooperation will no longer be criminalized, and human progress will be able to go on unimpeded to solve the grave problems we we are facing, we will have partly to thank the engagement of the activists and advocates in Barcelona.
Though many attendees were very aware that free cultural production and exchange was a precondition for a more equitable and sustainable world, they were also aware that the free culture movement, as defined above, would need to build alliances and bridges with other key movements, such as those fighting against the climate chaos that is generated by our current infinite growth economic engine; as well as other social justice efforts. It is a key condition, but not a sufficient condition for global social change. However, it was not the focus, and perhaps not yet the time to trash out such linkages, as this meeting was rather devoted to create and pull our ‘own house’ in order. When these connections will start occurring on a wider scale, the hyper-productive peer production of political forces will interconnect and advance not just free culture, but the material underpinnings of it.
If the popular success of the Oxcars free culture award ceremony is any indication, the Charter will be embraced by the new generations as they make their mark on human history. It also created a real community that will remain connected beyond this founding moment. So the FC Forum was not in any way the closure of a particular process, but rather the start of a new evolution, that is just beginning to make itself felt in human culture and politics.
(as I had to leave Barcelona to attend another key meeting, on “collaborative platforms for open and distributed manufacturing”, delegates of the various subgroups were trashing out the last details of the common document)


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