Linda Hilfling: Restrictions and Reservations, Examining National Public Domains

Published on November 12th, 2011

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Linda Hilfling's new project 'A Public Domain' is a reflection on and intervention into language as a commons.

An e-mail conversation between Linda Hilfling (LH) and Annet Dekker (AD)

part of NetArtWorks: The Database, the Datacloud and the Public (Data)Domain

SKOR, Amsterdam November 2011


AD: Could you tell me a little bit more about your current project A Public Domain? How did the project come about?

LH: I have always been puzzled by the idea that you are able to trademark a word – by this I mean not just the graphical representation of it, the logo, but that the use of a word or a phrase in itself, can actually be reserved and restricted.

Usually, it is difficult to grasp the extent of this, since it is all about licenses registered in the National Intellectual Property Office’s databases and we are generally only confronted with it when new cases of (often utterly absurd) lawsuits reach the media, such as when Lady Gaga threatens an ice cream maker that produces ice cream from human breast milk under the name ‘Baby Gaga’, or when Facebook gains the rights to the word ‘face’.

I started examining the online search services of the Danish National Intellectual Property Office website and was surprised to find that many of the ordinary words I entered into the search query seemed to be reserved in some way or another. So I contacted the office to get more information. They didn’t want to share their knowledge, but said that I could buy a list of the words for almost €2000 and if I needed more data such as owner, class, registration and expiry date etc., it would probably cost me around €6000. But as I don’t have enormous sums to spend on data, which is already publicly available, I decided to write a small script that simply automatically collected the data I was interested in from their site.

The list I assembled of currently registered ‘wordmarks’ (words registered as trademarks, without regard for their graphical representation) within Denmark was huge: around 70,000 words (in fact, the Benelux version is even larger, containing more than 180,000 words). It was very interesting to be able to gain an overview of what kind of words it actually contained. Think of the entire history that is displayed in the wordmarks, where different eras are related to the heydays of specific words and phrases like Xerox, Big Mac, Kleenex or Android. But I was also surprised to find many names of persons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, and also, of course, the huge amount of everyday words like ‘information’,  ‘public’, ‘mormor’ (Danish for ‘grandmother’), ‘sport’, ‘fri‘ (‘free’ in Danish), and so on.

The Danish Art Foundation held an Open Call for works encouraging artists to rethink the relationship between art and public space. I proposed developing A Public Domain based on my research.

A Public Domain is a public domain, or at least an ironic attempt to realise a public domain in a literary sense. It takes the form of an open wireless network, which is dependent on a type of inverted database that subtracts registered wordmarks from its flow of information. You can use the project as a kind of software filter to intervene in existing network infrastructures by creating an open access point with the name A Public Domain. Anyone can log on and access the Internet through this connection. But all traffic on the network is filtered in such a way that all the words that are found which are registered as wordmarks are substituted by blank spaces – the trademarks are literary removed from the content. This means that, since many words are missing, websites visited through the network are fragmented and amputated and eventually one will have to guess the overall meaning of the content

The Danish Art Foundation approved the project proposal and I started working on the project, but as the number of words is so huge, it was a bit of a struggle to find a way to make it happen. Luckily, I bumped into Kristian and Emil from Labitat – Copenhagen’s hacklab – who gave me invaluable advice and guided me in how to realise the project. The Impakt Festival invited me to Utrecht this summer [2011] to develop a Benelux version of the work during a two-month residency, which resulted in Een Publiek Domein. This was based on a mirror I made of the Database of Registered Wordmarks that you can find on the Benelux Property Office website. The Norwegian version was shown at the Piksel Festival in Bergen in November 2011.

AD: Do you have any idea of why these differences exist between countries and if anyone is also working on a European database?

LH: Yes, it has actually been possible to register trademarks internationally since the end of the nineteenth century. However, the trademark owner would have to register the trademark in each individual country, since the countries had different prices, etc. This system still exists and is called the Madrid Protocol, but today there are several international systems for registering trademarks, which can be a bit confusing.

There is a specific kind of European trademark database called the CTM system, short for Community Trademark System. Currently, the CTM is managed by the European Union’s trademark registry with the lovely name: Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market. This system exists parallel to the Madrid Protocol.

The Benelux countries started collaborating on a convention for trademarks already in the 1960s, but their current convention – the Benelux Convention on Intellectual Property – dates from 2005.

AD: Could you tell us something about people’s reactions to your questions – you said it was a bit of a struggle, in what sense exactly?

LH: The Danish trademark office was totally disinterested in sharing their database or collaborating with an artist. They are very protective of the data, since they sell it expensively to consultancy offices. But after extracting the trademarks myself, the greatest obstacles were on a technical level and involved establishing and filtering the traffic of the access point.

I’m a Linux user and it’s not all wireless chipset, which you are able to use in the so-called master mode – this is the mode you use when creating an access point. So it was a bit of trial and error, but everything worked out well in the end.

AD: This seems like a lot of  ‘desk-based’ research. How does this relate to physical (public) space?

LH: A trademark is bound to physical space through its legislative borders. This can be the nation state in which it is registered, as well as other jurisdictional territories, for instance, the Benelux Convention for Intellectual Property, the European Union’s CTM, and so forth. In this way each of the different versions of A Public Domain becomes very tied to specific physical territories.

On another level the project also creates a space consisting of injected data-voids, not just in the content of the websites, but also in the actual physical space. This is because the network intervention in itself is local and is determined by the built environment and the range of the antenna that is used to distribute it, i.e. the further you are from the antenna, the weaker the connection, and eventually you’ll be out of range and not able to join A Public Domain.

I usually put up a sign or a sticker to point out the relationship between the so-called virtual – the information architecture – and the physical environment.

Linda Hilfling, 'A Public Domain'

Linda Hilfling, ‘A Public Domain’

AD: Could you elaborate a bit more on the way you see the relation or difference between the public and the private domain?

LH: It is interesting to examine a system like trademarks, which, within a capitalistic logic, supposedly protects private rights from exploitation and abuse, but which conversely seem to rather protect the private right to abuse and exploit the commons. Linguistics has a saying that describes language as a site of executed power: ‘The difference between a language and a dialect is that a language is a dialect with an army’. (A good friend of mine is an anthropologist and he once mentioned the quote. As far as I remember it stems from the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich.) The same principle seems to compensate for the difference between language as a public domain and privatised language – alas, it is not an army of soldiers, but the monetary resources empowering someone to hire an army of lawyers (or not) that seems to create the difference between the two.

A case in point is the non-profit Rebellious Media Conference on activist media, which took place in London a few months back. Initially the organisers called it the Radical Media Conference, with a reference to John Downing’s book Radical Media (1984). But in early spring the organisers received a cease-and-desist letter from lawyers representing the international advertising bureau called @Radical Media demanding they stop using the name ‘Radical Media’ immediately or they would be taken to court.

I’m sure that the conference would have won the right to use ‘Radical Media’ in a possible court case. Nevertheless, they ended up changing their name, not because the law wasn’t on their side, but because executing their right would have cost them thousands of pounds (even if they had won), and this was money they didn’t have, of course.

AD: And what interests you in the public domain, and, as such, the private domain?

LH: Usually, ‘public domain’ is a term used to describe something left over from the private, i.e., a body of works of which the private copyright has expired, including those rare cases where authors have given up copyright by choice. The term is also used somehow interchangeably with other terms such as ‘the commons’ or even ‘public space’ or ‘the public sphere’, depending on which profession is using it.

I’m interested in the potential of the irrational, the dysfunctional and the disruptive as a means to rethink what a public domain is or could be. Theories such as ‘the tragedy of the commons’ as well as ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’ advocate two different strategies on how best to protect the public domain/the commons: either by introducing private property rights to defend the public domain against a greedy private person within a collective (as in the tragedy of the commons), or by introducing public property pools to protect the collective from multiple greedy individuals (as in the tragedy of the anti-commons). But no matter which of these supposedly contradictory measures are taken, they always occur within a system, which encourages the use of the public domain within a capitalistic logic. My interest is rather the opposite. For me there is not a singular ‘the’ public domain, but a plurality of public domains that are created with the painful realisation of the paradox and impossibility inherent in realising public domains.

In opposition to Haberman’s notion of communicative actions, public domains for me are sites for anti-communicative acts, i.e., irrational and absurd, recursive impossibilities taking the form as glimpses of understanding the impossibility of being created under the conditions in which they are created … post-utopian public domains.

For me A Public Domain is one such example, since the intervention works as a reflection on it’s own tragedy. For the guided tour in Utrecht I invited some other artists, who I think also deal with this sort of painfulness and irrationality in relation to the commons or public domains. Goodiepal’s work on distributing monetary gifts to improve the public sphere is a great example. He claims to have borrowed €100,000 and distributed all of it as blank checks, as copies of his credit card, or as DKK 500 bills, money the recipient should use to educate him or herself and thus improve the public sphere. But eventually he ended up with the enormous burden of having to pay off the debt.

AD: How is the project A Public Domain set up? You made an online version that uses an open wireless network, it filters all the data, and substitutes texts that are not in the public domain with blank spaces, and for the Impakt Festival you organised a performance/walk. How do these different outputs relate to each other?

LH: Having the form of an online software package that you can download and install to create your own APD access point, the project is an invitation to meta-reflections on the notion of the public domain and the commons as we know them. Therefore, I also find it natural to open up the project and explore with others the implications of the plurality of public domains. At the 2011 Impakt Festival, A Public Domain invited a few other guests and together we took people on a guided city walk through different reflections and thoughts on public domains throughout Utrecht.

The featured presentations explored what I like to call post-utopian perspectives on public domains. This means that instead of being idealised or criticised as something unattainable, the public domain is investigated as something that is by default fragmented and compromised. In this way the different lectures and interventions render the aspect of public domains painfully tangible, though in a playful way.

Each presentation took place at a specific site that is somehow related to the topic. I had intended to present Een Publiek Domein at Utrecht Central Station, which is part of a large shopping centre. The complex has a commercial Internet hotspot served by one of the main Dutch teleproviders, KPN, and I wanted to install Een Publiek Domein as an intervention in this network. This would have created a parasite access point called Een Publiek Domein that anybody could use to connect to the Internet (without having to pay, as they otherwise would have to do through the original KPN hotspot). However, the information that could be accessed was marked by the limitations of the public domain, i.e., words would be filtered out according to the trademarks registered at the intellectual property databases. Unfortunately, due to some technical issues, we had to relocate to Theater Kikker.

AD: Could you elaborate on the kind of methodology or strategy that you use in your work?

LH: My work often take the form of tools as kinds of meta-reflection, which somehow turns the issues in question on their head. They are always working tools, they function in a technical sense, but instead of producing rational answers to the questions being raised, they provide rather absurd, dysfunctional solutions, which deliberately raise more questions than answers.

AD: Some people might say these are very social or political acts, layered with an aesthetic form or language. But I would like to argue that the chosen art methodology is what makes these works artworks. How do ‘tensions’ between these different layers play out for you? What is your view on that – how do you deal, for example, with galleries, museums and art critics?

LH: Although my work is always political, it doesn’t really fit into a classical model of political representation, as it never points to the possibility of a perfect solution or ‘the right way’. It is ambiguous. The various tools highlight different issues and ask people to think about them, but do not tell them exactly what to think, and this is probably the greatest distinction between more traditional social or political acts and my practice. But is it an art methodology? I’m not entirely sure. It could also be called critical design, since the output is actually fully functioning tools, exposing issues rather than representing them. In fact, most of my works are a bit difficult to exhibit in a gallery, since they are usually interventions within existing structures. But then again, at the same time they are dysfunctional tools, and I guess it would be hard for me to fit into groupings of designers or system architects, who generally make ‘useful’ tools as effective answers to problems, whereas my work is rather dysfunctional. So somehow the work ends up in a grey zone between these different categories.


Linda Hilfling, 'A Public Domain'

Linda Hilfling, ‘A Public Domain’


AD: In what way does A Public Domain relate to your previous work?

LH: As with many of my previous works, A Public Domain deals with the performativity of certain regulations and control mechanisms and the kind of ‘space’ that regulative frameworks are executing and creating. Through my work I rethink such structures and turn things upside down, and in this way I want to highlight hidden gaps and/or inconsistencies. I use these hidden spaces not only to simply improve a system but as a material to create a critical reflection on its conditions of existence.

I’ve been interested in how someone like the linguist J.L. Austin describes words as actions in themselves – the so-called speech act. But whereas he was only working with language, I’m also interested in the performativity of other systems and structures – how, for instance, architectures, and by this I mean physical as well as information architectures, and computer code or laws can be understood as performative acts.

But I’m aware of the arbitrariness of a system and throughout my work I emphasise this incompleteness of the performativity as a kind of double movement, where the life within the structure forms the structure itself – for example, a certain use of a given word might potentially alter the meaning of that word, and thereby alter the speech act as well. In this way I guess my work is closer to Judith Butler’s gender theories as a performative rather than a speech act, as initially formulated by Austin.

AD: In many of your earlier works, as in the current A Public Domain, you seem to be particularly focused on language. What does language mean to you? And, if so, in what way do you relate to other examples from the past that used language as a means to express ideas, both aesthetically and politically?

LH: My main interest is in systems and structures, architectures and how living within a certain structure informs daily life, but at the same time, I am concerned with how these structures are also informed by daily life. The built environment can be one such architecture or structure and a legislative system can be another, while code and information structures may be others, and so on.

For me language is also one such structure. I see it as a sort of space or as being spatiality created by our use of it, but it also shapes how we can use it, which makes it exciting and challenging to work with.

There are, of course, many works that have inspired me to think like this. Someone like Jorge Luis Borges is an important point of reference, and specifically in relation to A Public Domain I could mention Heath Bunting’s «_readme» project, which deals with the commercialisation of the Internet. Another source of inspiration, though not explicitly related to language, but to public domains, is Giambattista Nolli’s map of Rome from 1748, in which he depicted all publicly accessible areas of the city as inverted white space in an otherwise solid black structure of private domains.

AD: On the other hand, I think your work creates absurdity, plays with humour, etc. Is that also one of your goals?

LH: Yes, indeed. I like to look for the surprising and the absurd in areas most people usually find a bit boring by consulting national trademarks registers, making close readings of click-and-agree contracts, studying the history of obsolete operating systems, etc. I guess that the absurdity, the dysfunctional and the ineffectiveness related to the context of these works make them sort of ‘funny’. In this way humour is always part of my work, although it is not at all slapstick, but rather a very dry form of humour.

AD: And from another angle does the notion of fun (as experimentation or an act of subversion or coincidences) also come back in your working process?

LH: Sure, coincidences, inconsistencies, gaps, oddness or otherness is what gives everything a drive and what creates meaning for me.

AD: The text about your walk during the Impakt Festival said that the ‘tour’ ended at the observatory, quite a vast and, to a certain extent, public domain, so I guess it’s not without reason that you chose it as your destination. But could you explain what this place (and the beyond) signifies to you? And how do you see the relationship between outer space and our world (planet)?

LH: This question takes me back to post-utopian public domains and the playful painfulness that is inherent to trying to practice paradoxes. For me thinking of outer space or perhaps worn out satellites as public domains somehow renders the notion of the public domain into something unattainable, but also and at the same time a very physical, omnipresent and real Utopia – which of course again is a contradiction ;-)

By coincidence I stumbled upon Alejandro Duque’s project on satellite spotting and I invited him to give a mini hands-on-lecture. Alejo has conducted very interesting research, where he questions how a notion of the commons is being used in International Space Law to sustain the sovereignty of technologically developed countries over the less developed.

Somehow, spotting satellites at dusk seems to be a great way to end the beginning of a journey into reflections on public domains.

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